As millions of young people in China graduate from university this month, the traditional pictures of joyful students throwing their hats and gowns into the air have been replaced by photos of them lying on the ground or throwing their degree certificates into the bin.

Some photos show students draping themselves over bridges or park benches in poses of dejection. In others, students lie face down on stairs or in grassy fields.

The pictures, which have been going viral on social media, allude to the fact that 11.6 million students are about to enter a difficult jobs market for young people. On Thursday youth unemployment hit a record high for the second consecutive month as the economy’s post-Covid growth spurt faded.

This year, instead of the classic hat-throwing, flower-holding, and joyful smiles, Chinese students opted for defeated poses (with many literally just ‘laying flat’), apocalyptic backgrounds, or purely sarcastic shots where they are seen throwing their graduation thesis. pic.twitter.com/MhU5XBqMtR

— RADII (@RADII_Media) June 13, 2023

The unemployment rate for Chinese people between the ages of 16 and 24 rose to 20.8%, up from 20.4% in April, the National Bureau of Statistics said.

University was once an elite pursuit, but in the past decade enrolment rates have increased as young people saw a degree as a ticket to a better job in China’s competitive market. Between 2012 and 2022, the university enrolment rate rose from 30% to 59.6%, according to the ministry of education.

With the pandemic, higher education became especially popular as many students chose to stay in school rather than look for a job in an economy that was all but paralysed under zero-Covid restrictions. Between 2021 and 2022, the number of registered students at higher education institutions (which include vocational and administrative colleges as well as academic universities) increased by more than 6%.

But rather than celebrating their degrees, many students now joke that their studies were a waste of time. One commenter on Douyin, a video-sharing platform, wrote: “I love this style of graduation photo, it’s very much like my half-dead state of life.”

Many of the photos echo the “lying flat” trend, the trope used by young Chinese people frustrated with the competition of modern life. Instead of struggling, they opt for “lying flat”: not buying a house, not buying a car, not getting married and opting for a more passive, low-consumption lifestyle. Or, in the words of another Douyin user: “The next step to look forward to is retirement.”

Other graduates have been taking a different approach. In another social media trend, some Chinese students have been hawking their academic skills on the street. One graduate of the London School of Economics posted a picture of himself with a cardboard billboard, offering consulting skills in: “Russia-Ukraine, modernisation theory, populism, identity politics [and] the neoliberal dilemma.”


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