China's millennials dig the gig economy

A recruiter handing out a flier to a job seeker in Hebei province. Millennials in China are warming to short-term employment.
A recruiter handing out a flier to a job seeker in Hebei province. Millennials in China are warming to short-term employment.PHOTO: REUTERS

Young people favour flexibility of short-term jobs as state-owned firms trim headcounts

BEIJING • Donning a fur-lined jacket along with a Miu Miu bag, Ms Zhang Chen is not your traditional Chinese migrant worker. She huddles with about 40 others in the frosty, polluted air of north Beijing, waiting to apply for a two-day job guiding visitors at a sporting goods convention.

"The money is not much," the 21-year-old accounting student said of the short gig that pays about 240 yuan (S$50). "But I want a more interesting life."

She was lined up for the work through DouMi, a start-up that focuses on part-time positions and blends elements of a temp agency with an Internet jobs board and marketing service. With backing from Web giants Baidu and Tencent Holdings, monthly active users have doubled to 20 million in just six months as China's young people warm to short-term employment and bloated state-owned enterprises trim their labour force.

For around 130 yuan a day, DouMi users can sort crates of milk at a supermarket or hand out pamphlets on frozen sidewalks. Those between the ages of 18 and 28 and considered "beautiful women" can make four times as much (plus tips) by working as live-streaming models to keep mostly male viewers entertained. Many of the roles run for mere days or weeks at a time, a flexibility that suits those juggling social lives and university studies.

"Every month we have between 300,000 and 400,000 jobs," said chief executive officer Zhao Shiyong. "There are a lot of younger people who say they don't want too much job security as they may not need it, because often they don't plan to stay in any one city."

Hopping from one short-term stint to another is not the sort of aspiration an earlier generation had in China, where the middle-class dream has long been university degrees followed by a stable job - preferably one backed by the government. In a 2016 poll of 13,000 college students, 48 per cent said they did not want to enter the traditional labour market. Almost half of DouMi's job seekers are students while 90 per cent are 35 or younger.

DIFFERENT WORK ETHIC

Those born after 1990 are no longer as hardworking and uncomplaining as their parents. They value freedom and leisure, and hate being restricted by superiors in traditional jobs.

PROF BAI PEIWEI, economics professor at Xiamen University, on the new expectations the younger generation of Chinese have when looking for a career.

"Those born after 1990 are no longer as hardworking and uncomplaining as their parents," said Xiamen University economics professor Bai Peiwei. "They value freedom and leisure, and hate being restricted by superiors in traditional jobs."

At its Beijing headquarters, DouMi's corridors are filled with brightly painted advertising banners of other brands. The company, which is named after a colloquial expression for building vast wealth one cup of rice at a time, works with established employers like Starbucks and KFC to find labour on demand. For an extra fee, DouMi will run entire marketing campaigns - printing pamphlets while training the sales staff who will pound the pavements to sell a product.

  • 20m

    Number of monthly active users on DouMi, a start-up that focuses exclusively on part-time positions.

  • 400k

    "Every month we have between 300,000 and 400,000 jobs," said DouMi chief executive officer Zhao Shiyong.

  • 48%

    Percentage of 13,000 college students in China who said in a 2016 poll they did not want to enter the traditional labour market.

While part-time work fits in with the desires of the nation's newest workers, it is also winning favour from an increasing number of older ones. China is going through its slowest economic growth in more than 25 years and the underemployment rate jumped to more than 5 per cent last year from near zero in 2010, according to at least one estimate.

Workers at unprofitable state-run steel mills and coal mines face bleak scenarios. Many have had their pay cut and shifts reduced while others are forced to take unpaid leave. The number of manufacturing, mining and construction jobs has been shrinking since 2012 while more workers flock to a gig economy that tends to hire with more flexibility.

"We'll see more people forced to take part-time jobs," said Professor Zhou Xiaozheng, a former sociology academic at Renmin University in Beijing. "Who doesn't want stable, traditional and easy jobs at state-owned companies? But those jobs are no longer available, or are at least not available to college graduates or migrant workers who don't have any privilege."

DouMi was spun off from 58.com, commonly referred to as the Craigslist of China, which remains its biggest shareholder and a vital source of referrals. Users of 58.com are automatically redirected to DouMi when they search for part-time work. Even if that does not end up being through DouMi, the need to find part-time workers is not going away.

"This is an old industry but there's a revolution here driven by technology," said Mr Harrison Xiao, head of strategic investment at New Hope Group and a backer of DouMi. "We see a trend - as more and more people use the Internet, they're going to use it to find part-time jobs."

BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 22, 2017, with the headline 'China's millennials dig the gig economy'. Print Edition | Subscribe