A customer at a supermarket in Renhuai, Guizhou province, on June 9. In taking over grocery shopping and other household chores, “full-time children” are finally having down-to-earth experiences. Photo: Xinhua
April Zhang
April Zhang

How being ‘full-time children’ is helping China’s ‘chicken babies’ grow up

  • These mostly only children are taking care of their parents’ needs instead of their own wants, as the priority shifts from passing exams to being of service to family
  • This is a genuine opportunity for young people to mature, and for a parenting rethink: what used to work no longer does in a changing China
My niece was a “ full-time daughter” long before the term existed. After graduating with a degree in electronics in June 2021, and with no job offers, she went home to live with her parents. She studied hard for the postgraduate entrance exam that year but didn’t pass.

From then until late August 2022, when she found a job as a tech support assistant, her calendar was blank for the first time in her life. She helped her parents clean, cook and shop for groceries, and got a modest allowance while taking time to find a job.

She could have been included among China’s “ full-time children”, a category of adults who choose “ lying flat” to get out of the rat race. But I see a different story with her.
The phenomenon of “full-time children” is a result of China’s high youth unemployment. It refers to young adults with no full-time job, who live with their parents and get paid for doing housework. Tens of thousands have identified as “full-time children” on social media.

Their emergence is an indication that young people face shrinking opportunities in an economy that previously had high growth for decades, enriching the generations now supporting their young. It is also connected with a disillusionment among fresh graduates, some of whom chose to take zombie-like graduation photos to show their disenchantment.

The predicted fallout is severe. For a start, China’s ageing population problem will be exacerbated as fewer marry and have children. Stay-at-home adult children, coupled with an ageing population, is a recipe for trouble.
China’s latest action – or inaction – has not quietened the speculation. After youth unemployment hit a record high in June, Beijing stopped releasing the figures. It was seen as further evidence of the country’s economic slowdown, foreshadowing a dim future.

I don’t deny these arguments have their points. But excessively focusing on the negatives overlooks the benefits of being “full-time children” for a generation who are almost exclusively only children.

Raised as “ chicken babies”, these young people have been under tremendous pressure. They are nurtured in almost every aspect of their lives for the sole purpose of doing well in exams, going to a good university and landing a stable job.


‘Let it rot’: surviving China's high unemployment and cost of living

‘Let it rot’: surviving China's high unemployment and cost of living

Only when this route to success is abruptly interrupted does real life begin. For the first time, roles are reversed. These full-time children are helping their parents, catering to their needs instead of their own wants.

Although they get a “pay cheque” from their parents, they know the nature of this “employment” is family. It is a temporary measure, a last resort. The relationship is not transactional. Nobody is going to quit or be fired.

Also, as the centre of their lives shifts from passing exams to being of service to the family, these young adults are having down-to-earth experiences. The displays on social media are all about the nitty-gritty of everyday lives and a tranquil affection between them and their parents.

Of course, this can’t be all rosy and idyllic, and struggles and anxieties are obviously an undercurrent, but this is not all bad, either. With their parents’ support, it becomes an opportunity for these children to truly grow up.

What the emergence of ‘full-time children’ tells us about modern China

When my niece was in her final year at university, she was still just a big child in many ways. But when we had a video call last September, soon after she started her job, I felt she showed maturity.

Could she have achieved the same growth without that period of struggle? I doubt it. Will her period of struggle affect her life? Absolutely. And it is much better to enter working life as a mature young woman than as a big child.

There is a lesson for parents, too. After experiencing China’s rapid growth, they tend to replicate what worked in their lives for their children. That is why they tell them to study hard, go to a good university, land a stable job, get married and have children. They are also driven by an excessive and unhealthy competitiveness, constantly fearing that their only child will lag behind.

This “full-time children” phenomenon shows that parents are not always right. The road they have tried to pave for their children is not as smooth as promised. Changes are needed to adapt to a new era.

Parents, too, can do some growing up.

April Zhang is the founder of MSL Master and the author of the Mandarin Express textbook series and the Chinese Reading and Writing textbook series