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Parsing the 'parasite generation'

ALL over the world, it's common to hear folks lamenting the younger generation's lack of determination and work ethic. Kids these days ...

That's especially true these days in China where traditional values require parents to raise productive and responsible children, and where many single children today are spoiled and pampered by the mom, dad and grandparents.

The phenomenon of able-bodied but unproductive young people who live off their parents is called ken lao zu, or "those who bite the old folks." Of course, that's very derogatory, and the more polite term is the more universal NEET - not in employment, education or training and relying on their families.

Some blame spoiled single children, some their pampering parents, some an easier material life that makes this possible, some the recent economic downturn and the tight and stressful job market - but common sense tells us that all are factors.

Take poor Jack Chen who considers himself to be "living on the economic margins" of Shanghai and complains about the high cost of living.

"This is a miserable life," says the 27-year-old former computer sales assistant. He lost his job in the economic downturn last November.

Now he lives on about 1,500 yuan (US$220) from his parents every month. He lives with his girlfriend who fortunately has a job and also supports him.

He shrugs. What else could he do? Certainly he's not one of the "parasite generation."

Like Chen, most get at least pocket money - some get much more from wealthier parents who don't push them to find jobs or hunt for new ones.

Some live rather dreary lives on their own or back with mom and dad. Some lead lives of luxury.

"I'm not biting the old as society calls it," says Chen. "My parents are just helping out their only child in his hour of need. What's wrong with that?

"It's not like I don't want to find a job and just want to suck the blood from my parents. The truth is, I lost the job because of a crisis that nobody could help. Everyone confronts few difficulties in life. Who should I turn to if not my parents?" he says.

Chen is hardly on fire to find another job, despite his low-standard living and tinge of guilt about relying on his parents. He has to visit them once a month to collect the money - they refuse to transfer it to his bank account so he doesn't have to face them.

Some sociologists say these young people are unfairly labeled parasites.

"It's not the children's fault. Actually it's the whole social environment that leads to this phenomenon," says well-known sociologist Gu Xiaoming from Fudan University.

"In addition, I don't think it's a bad phenomenon. Even (US President Barack) Obama went through such a period," he adds. "Society should be tolerant because they and their parents have a right to decide their family life.

"And we shouldn't label those young people the 'parasite generation' any more. It's discriminatory and not good for their future development."

Some young people give no thought to labels, living a comfortable, carefree life off their parents.

Take Jerry Wang, who will soon graduate from the Shanghai International Studies University this month. He typically spends the day playing games on Playstation in his apartment, rent paid by his parents.

As graduation approaches and many of classmates search for jobs or internships, the 21-year-old from Wenzhou, Zhejiang Province, is still jobless and doesn't seem to worry.

Zhejiang is one of China's wealthiest areas and home to many successful private business people.

Wenzhou itself is known nationwide as the home of the super-rich.

"My parents send me 1,500 to 2,000 yuan monthly so I don't need to worry about daily expenses," says Wang.

His parents, who own an enterprise, want him to step into the business and sent him to Shanghai for university to further his career.

Why doesn't he go to work for the family now? Certainly they'd hire him.

"I just want to enjoy my life now," says Wang. "The company? Maybe later."

Unlike no-guilty Wang, many young people who "bite the old folks" do feel some remorse, though it's nice to live well without working or worrying where their next meal will come from.

Everyone hates the bitter-truth phrase ken lao zu - it's so humiliating, but they're not out there pounding the pavement.

Before he lost his sales job last November, Chen earned about 3,000 to 4,000 yuan every month and got a 5,000-yuan bonus at the end of the year.

His girlfriend earns about 2,000 yuan and they live economically in a one-bedroom apartment about an hour from downtown.

They go for a nice outing every weekend or two, but they have almost no savings.

The Shanghai native doesn't come from a wealthy family like Wang - his worker mother was laid off 10 years ago and his father earns about 5,000 yuan a month.

Almost all of the family's savings, nearly 100,000 yuan, was sunk because of Shanghai's stock market since early last year, when it plummeted from 6,000 points to 1,664.

"I feel bad for my parents at times. We are among the poorest in Shanghai and they always worry about how I can get married with no money," says Chen.

"But when I meet with my friends, a lot of them are also getting money from parents, whether they are working or not. After those gatherings, the guilt lingers for a few days."

Chen has pledged (but just to himself): "I will return three times the amount of money to my parents one day.

"But it's difficult to get enthusiastic for an active job search as I get used to this life, just lying around at home every day, with only one embarrassing day every month." That's the day he goes home to collect the pocket money with his hand out.

Anhui Province native Teresa Zhang, luckily, doesn't have to go to her parents with her hand out every month - they both live in Anhui.

Three years ago, the 25-year-old cosmetics consultant came to Shanghai with 30,000 yuan "to look for better opportunities."

But the city was far different from the rosy picture in her mind. She only got occasional small jobs like handing out cards or leaflets in the street, data entry, fast-food work, and so on.

She used up her parents' savings long before she found a stable job for 1,700 yuan a month as a receptionist at a small trading company.

When her family found out about her distress, they continued to transfer money to her account, about 2,000 every month.

"They worry about me because I'm alone in a remote place, so they want me to feel safe, at least not lacking money for emergencies," says Zhang.

"I feel very bad spending their money, but at the same time, I have to because Shanghai is a pricely city. I slept in a small bedroom with two other roommates, commuted for an hour and half to work every day and lived on 5-yuan lunch boxes, but I still couldn't survive on my salary alone."

Zhang never considered going back to Anhui either, since she had already spent so much money trying to make it in Shanghai.

"There is no going back now. As time goes by, I can only comfort myself by saying one day, I will buy a house in this city and ask my parents to move in with me," says Zhang.

Some parents think there's nothing wrong with supporting their only children so they don't have to work so hard.

"It's okay, go ahead, bite me" - that's what one well-off gent jokingly tells his working daughter who moved out of the house and works hard to make ends meet.

"You're working too hard, move back home and I'll pay you 2,000 a month," he says.

"I would bite your hand," replies the daughter, "but I don't want to move back and live with mom." About ken lao zu

The phrase, meaning "bite the old folks," generally refers to the post-1980s generation, many of them pampered only children.

In general, they are 23-35 years old, not actively looking for work and depending on their parents financially.

Some even get money from their parents for their wedding ceremony, a car ora house.

The phase caught on around 2005, when mainstream media like the China Youth Daily and Beijing Youth Daily published articles about the ken lao zu. It made a big stir.

The term even appears in Shanghai Daily's book "Buzzwords," defined as NEET (not in employment, eduction or training), "some young people who do not work but live off their parents."

From published articles, this is the picture that emerges:

About 30 percent of the ken lao zu are young blue collars who are tired of their exhausting work.

About 20 percent are fresh graduates who can't find a job that meets their high standards.

About 20 percent hope to become entrepreneurs but lack the experience and cash, according to the China Youth Daily.

The other 30 percent includes three groups: those who quit jobs for reasons like wanting a long break, job hoppers who are finally out of a job and those who were fired and are unwilling or unable to try again.


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