This is the fourth in a series of six stories exploring the causes and consequences of the domestic unemployment crisis China may face following the coronavirus pandemic. This story looks at the challenges facing China’s university graduates who will enter the worst job market in recent memory. (This story has been corrected. For details, see the note at the end of the story.) Su Yuxin has always looked forward to graduation. The 21-year-old dreams of making it as a hip-hop music producer. When she landed an internship at a famed music label in Beijing, she was excited to move on from her life in a lesser-known university in southern China. Now, with a pandemic weighing on the global economy, millions of students like Su have bigger things to fret about than being unable to land a dream job out of the gate. Her internship at the music label ended abruptly in February when her employer laid off all interns in response to a new coronavirus that was spreading across the country. “The uncertainty makes me scared,” said Su, who is now interning at an e-commerce company. “I am working as hard as I can to turn this internship into a job offer. If that fails, I might apply for graduate school overseas.” Su is one of 8.7 million Chinese college students on track to graduate this summer, which is shaping up to be the worst possible time to enter the job market in recent memory. For the first time since 1976, China’s economy shrank at the start of the year, ending four decades of uninterrupted growth that fuelled the country’s economic rise to be second only to the United States. Furthermore, the pandemic has crippled the global economy, creating external pressure on China despite the country having brought the coronavirus under control. It has raised the spectre of a looming unemployment crisis in China that is being exacerbated by what analysts said is a skills mismatch in the job market that has developed over more than a decade. While China has pinned its hope on young, educated people like Su to expand the country’s middle class and support the country’s growth, a potential surge in youth unemployment has now put Beijing on the defensive. The year of 2020 is looking to be the most difficult year for fresh graduates, because China’s private sectors, a big part of the hiring source, are struggling, closing, and unable to hire Hu Xingdou Born in the late 1990s, China’s class of 2020 has never experienced an economic downturn, and their parents’ generation emerged from the 2008 financial crisis largely unscathed. But the economic shock caused by the pandemic has threatened the prosperity of both generations, and is likely to become a scar that will follow young jobseekers through their careers. “The year of 2020 is looking to be the most difficult year for fresh graduates, because China’s private sectors, a big part of the hiring source, are struggling, closing, and unable to hire,” said Hu Xingdou, a Beijing-based economist. China’s economy contracted 6.8 per cent in the first quarter. The International Monetary Fund forecast in April that the global economy would fall by 3 per cent this year, which would mark the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. The contraction has been directly reflected in China’s job market. A recent study by Peking University showed that the number of jobs on offer shrank by 27 per cent in the first quarter . The fall was led by the entertainment and services sector, followed by education, sports, information technology and finance. According to Zhaopin, a popular Chinese recruitment site, the first three months of this year saw the number of positions open to fresh graduates decline 17 per cent from last year. The number of people vying for the same positions increased by 70 per cent. Seeking to stem a surge in youth unemployment, China’s Ministry of Education launched in May a 100-day campaign to help graduates find a job. The campaign includes expanding graduate programmes, increasing hiring by state-owned enterprises and drafting more students into the military. Analysts said the impending jobs crisis for college graduates was made worse by the fact there were too many of them. The surge in college enrolments has outpaced the growth in white collar jobs, a decade-old phenomenon that complicates China’s efforts to mitigate the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic. The number of college graduates has been growing every year since about two decades ago, when attending university was considered a privilege. In 1998, only about one in 10 people aged between the ages of 18 and 22 attended university. In 2016, more than four in 10 were college students. Most will need to go into the modern service sector and hi-tech sector, but the demand in these sectors in China can’t catch up with the growth in the number of college students Xu Hongcai “College graduates are looking for decent jobs,” said Xu Hongcai, deputy director of the Economic Policy Commission at the China Association Of Policy Science. “Most will need to go into the modern service sector and hi-tech sector, but the demand in these sectors in China can’t catch up with the growth in the number of college students.” China’s higher education explosion began in 1999, when the government started to drastically expand college enrolment to boost the education level of the workforce. The effort meant more people in China could earn a college degree, but it also made the labour market more competitive. In 2003, four years after the expansion started, the State Council, China’s cabinet, held its first-ever meeting to discuss employment for college graduates. At the meeting, Chinese officials vowed to create more jobs for them to prevent social instability that could arise from youth unemployment. One long-standing policy that came out of the meeting was to attract graduates to sign up for two-year civil servant programmes in poor rural regions, in exchange for better job prospects after it ended. The lack of jobs for college graduates has been reflected in the salaries they earn. Among the university graduates who found jobs, 60 per cent earned the same or less than a migrant worker or a delivery worker, according to data in a 2019 report from Zhaopin. China’s labour market under pressure on multiple fronts as economy struggles Li Qiang, executive vice-president of Zhaopin, said the jobs that were most available to college graduates were as real estate brokers, salespeople and technicians, but young jobseekers did not want those positions. According to a 2020 survey of nearly 7,600 graduates by Zhaopin, more than a quarter of respondents wanted a job in the tech sector, while another 10 per cent wanted to work in the media and entertainment industry. Hu, the Beijing-based economist, estimates that one-fourth – or about 2.2 million – of college graduates this year may be jobless. “Many of them might end up applying for graduate school next year,” he said. The Covid-19 pandemic has made it harder for young people to find their ideal jobs – or any jobs. Candidates desperate for work have cut their expected salaries and benefits. Having forced many among China’s 400-million-strong middle class to tighten their belts, the pandemic is also threatening to prevent educated youths from joining its ranks. It could potentially slow a decades-long expansion in the middle class that is central to China’s plan to create sustained economic growth by boosting consumption. Chinese universities seek top students for special maths, science classes Zhao Xingxing, a 24-year-old who studies food safety in the central province of Henan, said she had applied for more than a dozen jobs since April. Five companies granted her an interview, but none offered a position. Zhao said an annual job fair at her school was cancelled because of the virus outbreak. Most employers have conducted online interviews during the pandemic and Zhao thinks she could have performed better in person. “I realised I was too optimistic. I thought I was really good,” she said. “I realise I’m just an average college student.” Zhao believes she will eventually get a job, especially now that she has cut her expected monthly salary from 4,000 yuan (US$565) to 3,000. The median salary for college graduates in 2019 was 5,600 yuan, according to Boss Zhipin, a Chinese recruitment app. The pandemic is a test for this generation. Some will use this period to think through how they could shine, others will focus on complaining that no one gets back to them. Jolene Zhao Most students of China’s class of 2020 have no siblings due to China’s decades-long one-child policy , which ended in 2015. They also grew up in a prosperous period that saw China’s share of global economic output increase from 7 per cent in 1999 to 19 per cent in 2019. This upbringing left them more interest-driven and ready to take risks than the previous generation, experts said, but it also means they are ill-prepared for a downturn, not to mention a recession on the scale triggered by the pandemic. “The pandemic is a test for this generation,” said Jolene Zhao, associate director at the Beijing office of Michael Page, a British-based recruitment consultancy. “Some will use this period to think through how they could shine, others will focus on complaining that no one gets back to them.” Zhao said that even before the pandemic, her clients had hired fewer fresh graduates in recent years. “These days many fresh graduates quit their first job in six months, often over trivial setbacks,” she said. “It’s not that the employers don’t want to hire fresh graduates, they are skilful, smart and cheap. But the companies found many of them lack the will power to push through difficult situations. Would they keep their calm when clients are having a tantrum? I have no confidence that they will,” said Zhao. Su Yuxin, the intern, said she wanted to find a company that has a culture that is more “open and free” and allows her to learn new things. While she is considering going to graduate school to wait out the pandemic, she is not going to aim lower. She can afford to do that because her parents will support her financially if push comes to shove. “My mum told me to prioritise learning and gaining experience above earning an income,” Su said. (In the last few paragraphs of the story, we incorrectly said Jolene Zhao’s recruiting agency had hired fewer graduates in recent years. Her company’s clients did.) The fifth part of the series will explore disparities between regions and income groups. Meanwhile, read about the switch in focus from growth to keeping the country’s jobless rate under control , and how well equipped China’s social safety net is to address rising unemployment.