The latest buzzword to have excited the imagination of a segment of China's youth - and contributed to the anxiety of its authorities - is "tang ping", translated as "lying down" or "lying flat". Censors were sufficiently worried that they took down the initial post on the subject that extolled the virtues of a simple and slow life and was penned by someone who professed not to have worked for two years and lived on just 200 yuan (S$41) a month. They also removed from Douban, a Reddit-like discussion platform, the Lying Down Group that attracted nearly 10,000 members, and where advice was given on how to embrace a "tang ping" lifestyle. The Chinese media went to town analysing the trend. One commentator called it "unjust and shameful", others suggested it was harmful to the country.
But Chinese experts recognise that the phenomenon is the reaction of some young people there to an escalating rat race that has spawned excessive work cultures like 996 - nine to nine, six days a week. A Communist Party official from a labour relations think-tank described cultural phenomena like "tang ping" as being rooted in economic and social transformations. Japan saw a somewhat similar development. Years of stagnation from the 1990s gave rise to hikikomori, or acute social withdrawal, among some of its young people. The 2008 global financial crisis led to Neets, young people not in education, employment or training.
In China, as the pace of economic growth slowed, competition has become more intense. This has spawned "nei juan", or involution, an anthropological concept seen in the Chinese context as a daily grind in which returns on investment and effort grow smaller. It may have led some to lose ambition and adopt a passive attitude towards work, and given rise to "tang ping". Increasing inequality and declining inter-generational social mobility are possible causes too. It is thus not surprising if the authorities worry that some among the young choose to "lie flat", particularly as the country faces an ageing population, a shrinking workforce and is aiming to maintain growth by going up the value chain to increase productivity. This requires a workforce that is innovative, highly skilled and nimble.
"Tang ping" may be a fad. But motivating young people who are minded to opt out of the system is something the government will think about. As is the case in many societies that face similar challenges, creating the right conditions for a skilled and motivated workforce requires the authorities to not only address the education system but also social and cultural structures, including issues like income inequality and low social mobility. China's continued growth and development has significant impact on the region, and many will watch how it manages such issues.