The in-between world: new wave migrants

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Unexpected changes

The All-China Federation of Trade Unions survey suggested that the children of migrant workers newly graduated from high school are not confident or competent in setting concrete career goals, or handling the complex and fluctuating information and social environments. With a lower resilience to setbacks (thought to be exacerbated by the miniaturization of families), they have much lower capacity for planning and realizing career goals. They do, however, have a strong appetite for advanced learning. According to the survey, 69.7 percent said they want technical know-how, 54.7 percent expressed an interest in legal studies, and 47.8 percent said they want to enhance their cultural knowledge. All feel their interests are integral to their career development.

It may be a question of how the new generation looks at things. Facing her potential competitors -- millions of college graduates who want to find employment in Beijing, Zhang Qianru is fearless. She learned to communicate well, an important means of survival, at the age of 15 - when she was exposed to city life for the first time as a boarding student in Shenyang. She commented that her academically superior colleagues were awkward in handling social matters. "In this respect they are inferior to me." Her lodgings, the 30-square-meter room her parents rent on the edge of the city proper, was too far from work, so her researcher-boss recommended that Qianru and another girl rent a room from her colleague that was closer to their workplace. No longer spending hours to commute, she had the time to dedicate to obtaining her undergraduate diploma. "To learn, one must be flexible. I take continuing education courses to obtain a diploma on the one hand, and to widen my vision and expand my interpersonal and social skills on the other. Before age 30, my main task is to absorb what the world has to offer. I am not anxious to set specific goals for myself."

If we can say that first-generation migrant workers primarily aimed for improvement in their livelihood, then second-generation migrant workers seem to have set their sights on experiencing life's richness and realizing a dream. The federation's survey also indicated that 76.2 percent of migrant workers born in the 1960s and 34.9 percent born in the 1970s claim they left home "to earn money." Only 18.2 percent of migrant workers born in the 1980s made the same claim. A whopping 71.4 percent of them cited reasons like: "I want to temper myself after graduation," "I want to have fun," "I want to learn a skill," and "Village life is dull."

Since they have never experienced poverty, and have no heavy family burdens, lower incomes don't seem to bother this generation of migrant workers. They do their best to improve their diet, wardrobe and lodgings… and fit in some travel. Beyond material gain, they pursue cultural activities and entertainment. Their consumption style is similar to other urban youth: at the end of every month they are broke. Meanwhile, the Chinese economy is shifting from dependence on export to expansion of domestic demand. But if we are looking to new-generation migrant workers to be one of the pillars of domestic demand, realizing their consumption potential looks like it should be a priority.

Picking and choosing

Zhang Qianru soon accompanied her boss on business trips, and one of these was to the now notorious Foxconn Company in Jincheng City, Shanxi Province. Seeing so many workers of her age on the production line, mechanically repeating simple operations, she felt very lucky. "Whether you're at Panasonic of Dalian or in Foxconn, certain arrangements prevail to keep technical secrets secret: workers are confined to one post. Having few, if any, opportunities to transfer to other positions means it is difficult to understand their own tasks in the production context or to get any overview of the process. The mind-numbing tasks deaden their interest in the outside world. "I would never do such a job even if were offered a high salary," asserts Zhang Qianru.

The newbie migrants are different from the older generation in their expectation for compensation as well as job positions; the old hands were not choosy about salary levels when looking for jobs, but the new view of worthwhile employment has caused a shortage of hands in various trades.

The catering trade in Beijing is having difficulty finding an adequate labor pool. The long work hours, low income, high intensity labor, and age limits for the positions all make keeping staff a challenge. Since personnel turnover in the industry is high, in general the bosses are reluctant to commit to insurance and contracts. The young migrant views this kind of job as bottom of the barrel. After the financial crisis, many migrant workers came back to support recovering industrial enterprises, intensifying the "shortage of hands" in catering.

It is also difficult to hire a housekeeper in Beijing. According to new rules, a servant's work hours are limited to 12 hours a day for no less than RMB 1,500 monthly, which is to include four days off. Even so, there are few migrant workers racing to fill these shoes. Many families in Beijing regard the housekeeper or nanny as a member of the family who is entitled to a good life and all the modern facilities. They often travel with their employers, accompany their charges to concerts, and just hang out with them and eat pizza. Even so, young and capable household servants are in great demand. In fact, employees accepting an hourly wage of RMB 12 are thin on the ground and babysitters demanding a monthly salary of RMB 5,000-6,000 are not unknown. "In our childhood, we were the center of the family. When I arrived at boarding school, I did not know to say 'thanks' to anyone. Later, I became good at building respectful relationships, but still… I cannot serve others," said Zhang Qianru. Obviously, the new breed of migrant worker places equal emphasis on economic and social parity. Then, the inevitable: a chronic shortage of household servants, and jobs with taxing work conditions left unfilled.

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