This Perfectly Captures Chinese People’s Nostalgia for Life Before Overwork

Buckling under the pressure to work 12-hour days, Chinese millennials are reminiscing about the life of their parents’ generation.
Chinese workers ask for eight-hour workday
Twelve-hour workday is common in big Chinese cities. PHOTO: Hector RETAMAL / AFP

A cut-throat work culture is burning out the white-collar workers in China. Now some of them are wondering aloud: What would life be like if people work only eight hours a day? 

One answer, first posted on Quora-like platform Zhihu, went viral this week by capturing the frustration and nostalgia shared by Chinese urban workers.

[Life] would be normal.

When we got home, the sun would still be up. The hallway would be filled with aroma. Some families would be stir-frying chicken, and some others making fish. After dinner, we would have time to take a walk. In the park, dads would teach their children to ride their bikes. Kids would run around with their flashlight, shining light beams across the bush and rustling leaves.

Our packages would not arrive the next day. Apps would not have as many strange functions. The shopping malls downtown would not have been knocked down. There would not be as many people who suddenly became rich.

We would have time to play basketball with our friends. After working out, we would not have to return to our work station. When someone came to visit our home, we would not get annoyed.

This was our life before 996.

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The answer, shared more than 73,000 times and liked by some 1.7 million users on Weibo, has prompted a wave of nostalgia among the urban workers who are struggling with the so-called 996 working culture, which stands for “9am to 9pm, six days a week.” 

The rosy depiction of life in the past has reflected a common frustration for China’s young generation that economic and technological development hasn’t made them happier.

Living with a harsh working culture and immense economic pressure, some young Chinese are reminiscing about the life of their parents’ generation, when “996” was far less common in urban workplaces. 

“This was my childhood, but not the childhood of the next generation,” said a comment that was liked 27,000 times. 

“It was my life as a child,” another top comment said. “There was no stress. My parents would watch TV with me after work.”

China’s miraculous economic growth over the past four decades has lifted more than 700 million people out of poverty and drastically improved people’s education attainment and life expectancy levels. 

But the growth is uneven, and the gaps between the super-rich and the working population is visibly widening. 

The rise of the private sector has produced hundreds of billionaires, but employees, despite receiving bigger paychecks, are working longer hours and living under enormous stress.

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The middle class use “involution”—an academic term that turned into an online buzzword—to describe their struggle. This consists of incessant competition but also low social mobility: people fight fiercely with their peers in education, career, and child-raising, but eventually none of them (and their children) will be able to reach the top of the pyramid.

Some urban workers are looking back at life in the 80s and 90s, when a majority of Chinese workers were employed by the state sector. The urbanites then worked fewer hours, had little pressure to hop between jobs, and enjoyed much education and healthcare benefits. Their children did not pack their schedule with extra-curricular activities to pad their resumes in order to get into a good school.

Several internet users have pointed out that rural residents fared far worse in the old days, when the Chinese government prioritized providing jobs and social welfare to the urban population. Eight-hour work was a distant dream for farmers living on the brink of starvation. 

But in general, criticism of the super-rich, who used to enjoy strong support from both authorities and citizens, has become more common on the Chinese internet. Jack Ma, once revered as a self-made billionaire, has faced an online backlash after he called 996 a “blessing” that would pave the way to success. 

The anti-996 sentiment could pose a new challenge to the ruling Communist Party, which must now walk a fine line between boosting the competitiveness of the Chinese workforce and maintaining social stability.

Under the Weibo post, many commentators have accused the “capitalists” of depriving people of a stress-free lifestyle and rights to enjoy the fruits of China’s economic success. 

“Everyone should read Marx to learn how capitalists exploit,” one person said. 

Follow Viola Zhou on Twitter.