Beware Pundits Bearing National Stereotypes

The front page of today's New York Times carries the shocking story that some Chinese college graduates prefer unemployment to factory work because they think it is beneath them.

I have encountered both ends of the Fill-In-The-Blank Work Ethic trope for most of my career. Thirty years ago, the Germans spoke derisively about "Polnische Wirtschaft" — or the laziness of Polish workers. Of course people showed little initiative when there was no reason (positive or negative) to work. They even had a joke: The government pretends to pay us and we pretend to work. After 1989, with wages tied to productivity and the dismantling of Poland's extensive (if shabby) social safety net, it turned out that Poles (and Czechs and Hungarians) worked just as hard (or in some cases, harder) than the Germans themselves.

For the past two decades, western businessmen and pundits have lauded the Chinese work ethic, as though it were something genetically or at least culturally engrained. They saw the workers in those factories in Guangdong province working 16-hour shifts for what seemed like a pittance, and proclaimed that the Chinese workforce would outcompete everyone else — but especially we soft, lazy Americans — for decades to come.

Now that stereotype is finally beginning to crumble. Chinese families that have enough saved up are enabling their college-educated kids to wait for the right job (even though there might not be one given the poor quality of some Chinese tertiary education). Those children seem just as likely to move back home or take rent subsidies as the offspring of some of my friends and recent grads in the US generally.

According to the Times story:

"A national survey of urban residents, released this winter by a Chinese university, showed that among people in their early 20s, those with a college degree were four times as likely to be unemployed as those with only an elementary school education."

And it's not just those spoiled intellectuals who are eschewing factory work. Plant managers throughout the Pearl River Delta have been having more and more trouble filling jobs for the past decade. Initially, they could just recruit workers from the hinterlands, but high wages for workers along China's coast and improved infrastructure inland have meant that economic development is moving inland as well.

The problem is that China does have a very strong cultural predisposition about work, but it involves a stigma against manual labor. Even 25 years ago, Beijing cab drivers often exhibited exceptionally long fingernails, which seemed like a bizarre affectation, but was intended to demonstrate to society that they did not have to work with their hands.

It turns out that people everywhere in the world will work just as hard as the rewards they receive — monetary, psychic, social standing — or the punishment they avoid (think Siberian salt mines or the threat of losing your housing for ration stamps). If hard times come, those Beijing taxi drivers and the newly minted college grads will work as hard as they have to in order to support themselves and their families economically. They will work even more effectively if they get less tangible benefits such as higher social status or a greater sense of self worth. But they'll do it because they're just like everyone else in the world, not because of their country of origin.

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