Side-hustle: China’s small-town youth are busting butt for fun and profit

3 min read
University students, pictured here December 2018, skateboard near Guiyang, Guizhou outside the Guizhou Normal University library. (Image credit: TechNode/Cassidy McDonald)
Students take a break from exams to skateboard outside their college library in Guiyang, Guizhou December 2018. (Image credit: TechNode/Cassidy McDonald)

This article originally appeared on Trivium UB, ​a ​Trivium China project focused on exploring the human factors driving China’s user markets.

As internet use diversifies across China’s population, reaching younger, older, and rural demographics, there’s been a general scramble to understand these emerging consumer markets. Last month, we took a look at China’s Gen Z, collecting study results and big data reports to piece together a profile on “the Focused Generation.”

It’s interesting stuff.

But there’s one major flaw in most of the data: though there are huge disparities between the needs and characteristics of urban and rural residents, studies tend to lump the two together, drawing conclusions that are either biased towards urban populations, or are too general to be actionable.

A series of new reports avoid these flaws by turning their lens on the attitudes of xiaozhen qingnian, or “small town youth.”

Drawing on big data scraped from its user base of 230 million 18-35 year olds from third-tier cities and below, short video platform Kuaishou (in Chinese) painted a picture of a hard-working demographic willing to roll up their sleeves in the name of self-improvement:

  • Small-town youth were eight times more likely than urban youth to watch “how-to” and educational content on the platform
  • 37% have a side gig to earn extra cash

A similar study from financial platform Paipaidai (in Chinese), also targeting rural youth markets, supported those results:

  • Around 75% of small-town youth have participated in pay-to-play adult education courses or workshops:
    • 44.5% took professional development courses
    • 38.8% took language, driving, communication, and life skills classes
    • 33.6% took classes related to their hobbies and personal interests
    • 19.6% took courses on history, economics, or society
  • 64.6% intend to start their own business

More where that came from: Commerce think tank Jiuyicheng compared employment numbers between urban and small-town youth, finding that while the latter are slightly less likely to pursue entrepreneurship (2.9% vs 3.6%), they’re slightly more likely to freelance (13.7% vs 12.3%).

 

What are they hustling for?

While it may sound like ivory tower nonsense, fact is that conceptions of material success in modern-day China are rooted in the philosophies of antiquity. In the Analects, believed to be written in 475–221 BC, Confucian disciples lay out the milestones of a life properly lived:

At fifteen my heart was set on learning; at thirty I stood firm; at forty I had no more doubts; at fifty I knew the will of heaven; at sixty my ear was obedient; at seventy I could follow my heart’s desire without overstepping the boundaries of what was right.

Over time, “standing firm” has come to mean “financial independence,” and “financial independence” means owning a house, buying a car, and being able to support one’s self and one’s family.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of the “house and car by thirty” ideal. Traditionalist perspectives hold that Chinese men aren’t marriageable until they’ve ticked each one of those boxes. The concept is still so prevalent that China’s date-to-marry matchmaking apps list income, home, and car ownership status at the top of user profiles, right up there with name and age:

In a screenshot captured from matchmaking app Zhen Ai, users advertise owning cars and houses (Image credit: Trivium)

But according to Kuaishou, only 30% of small-town residents between the ages of 18-35 have hit that magic target. Thus, hustle.

That’s not to say that money is the only measure of success: on the contrary, we’re increasingly seeing that primary decision-making drivers are trending away from naked materialism and towards self-actualization, both in consumption and non-consumption spheres. The Paipaidai report, for instance, points out that “doing work that interests me” was the primary reason given for wanting to start a business (58.7%), a much bigger motivator than “earning money” (36.1%).