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February 18, 2011

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White-collar blues

CHINA'S young white-collar professionals once were envied, but today they're singing the blues and saying they might as well be migrant workers. Yao Minji explains.

Jerry Zhu, a 33-year-old marketing manager at a small advertising company, is often jealous of his next-door neighbor, a 31-year-old auto mechanic.

"Our salary is about the same, but he's got leisure time to spend with his family, is not under pressure to fill a monthly quota and doesn't have to worry about office politics," says Zhu. "I often tell my wife I should have chosen to become a blue collar like him."

On a not-too-busy day, Zhu works from 9am to 1am, and he usually gets only one weekend off in two months. Over the seven-day Chinese New Year festival, he only had three days off.

Zhu earns 19,000 yuan (US$2,885) a month (nets 15,000 yuan after taxes). He owns an apartment (a gift from his family) and a car that he is making payments on.

The case of Zhu and many others like him illustrates the plight of that driven, competitive, aspiring group generally considered "white collars" in China.

There's no official definition of or criteria for being a white collar, but swirling on the Internet and generating debate and indignation is a new "standard" for white-collar status that includes making at least 20,000 yuan a month, owning a two-bedroom apartment and a car worth at least 150,000 yuan. There's a raft of other aspirational lifestyle standards.

This raises the bar, moves the goal posts on white-collar living.

"My wife is really upset," Zhu tells Shanghai Daily. "She says she doesn't even remember what I look like. We talk much more through SMS than face to face.

But she also understands that I have to work so hard to support the family and our baby. It's endless suffering."

Zhu is joking about wanting to be a blue collar, but many white-collar workers like him are anxious about similar issues.

"We work for so long for so little pay and we don't even have time to enjoy that income," says Zhu.

And today's skyrocketing cost of living in Shanghai and other big cities means their salaries don't go as far.

In China the term "white collar" was first used shortly after the reform and opening-up policy took hold in the 1980s. It described better-off Chinese working for foreign companies. At that time, it indicated high education, high salary and a chance to appreciate the better things in life. White collars were much admired.

That's no longer the case today, especially not the high salary and chance to enjoy life.

"I feel like a migrant worker, working endlessly under a lot of pressure," says Zhu.

The new white collar "standard" appeared online in January and has everyone debating and complaining. No one knows where it came from (the original posting has been lost) but it resembles a survey by a regional newspaper and website in Sichuan last year, with higher salary and value for the car.

Many office workers are shocked to find themselves so far from attaining the standard.

Government departments, such as economics and social welfare, have never defined blue, white and gold (elite but also harried) collars.

The common understanding used to be based on monthly salary that rose from 3,000 yuan in 2002-2003 to 5,000 in 2009. There was nothing about lifestyle, gyms, networks, apartments and certainly not LOHAS.

Experts consider this model an "aspirational" lifestyle that most young people have not attained.

As China's economic has developed, the number of office workers, so-called white collars, has greatly increased. Entry-level workers find themselves way below what they thought would be minimum standards. High prices have made the situation worse.

A self-reporting online survey, involving 20,000 participants, indicates that only 6 percent meet the 20,000-yuan salary mark, 13 percent own a two-bedroom apartment, 7 percent have a good car, 18 percent meet none of the 10 items and 38 percent meet only one to three of them.

"Income is no longer the major standard for defining a white collar and this new standard doesn't define job categories or professions of white collars," says sociologist Hu Shoujun from Fudan University.

"But we can glimpse the evolution of the idea of white collars from this standard. They were once admired as a group that led a gracious lifestyle, but now many white collars are not living so comfortably," Hu adds.

That's particularly true in Shanghai, where costs are high.

Many young white collars in Shanghai earn 5,000-10,000 yuan per month, far below the new standard. In addition, they have a child to feed, parents to care for, a mortgage to pay and car payments to make.

"It is simply impossible for most people like me to meet this standard, especially the high salary and leisure time, to say nothing about LOHAS," says 29-year-old Michelle Lin.

To have both high pay and leisure time would be living a life of luxury, she says. "You're lucky if you can choose between the two and I simply don't have any choice."

Lin is a typical white collar according to the old standards. A customer relations director at a large joint venture, she earns 12,000 yuan a month for working at least 80 hours a week.

Almost every day, she goes straight home (she lives alone) from work, eats and then goes to bed. She can barely see friends on weekends or holidays because she often has to work.

"I haven't had a vacation for three years, because I have so much work to do, and it's the same for all my colleagues," says Lin. "The salary isn't to bad if you live alone and don't ever consider buying a car, an apartment of having a child.

"I don't even have time or energy to worry about my complexion or health, forget about time to enjoy life," she says.

The latest, 10-point version, which would exclude Jerry Zhu, goes like this:

? Earns a monthly salary above 20,000 yuan;

? Owns a passenger car worth around 150,000 yuan;

? Owns a two-bedroom apartment;

? Works around eight hours a day and has leisure time;

? Goes to the gym regularly;

? Has fixed friends and a network;

? May work from home now or do so in the future;

? Enjoys regular entertainment activities;

? Prefers known fashion brands;

? Lives a healthy, LOHAS (Lifestyle of health and sustainability) lifestyle.

Zhu only fits three criteria: house, car and friends.


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