Ageism in China’s tech sector has workers fearing the “curse of 35”
Oct 26, 2023

Ageism in China’s tech sector has workers fearing the “curse of 35”

Marketplace's China correspondent Jennifer Pak says nowadays, most adults are even worried about reaching the age of 30 in fear of losing their career.

Here in the U.S., big tech is having a good earnings season as companies release their quarterly report cards this week. This is after a year marked by layoffs, with many tech workers going through the first industry downturn of their careers.

China’s tech industry has been even more exposed. The world’s second largest economy is struggling. Turns out, a long resume isn’t always helpful to those thrown out of work.

Marketplace’s Lily Jamali spoke with Marketplace’s China correspondent Jennifer Pak, who explained what’s being called the “curse of 35.” The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Jennifer Pak: If you are looking for work and you’re 35 or over, then you’re likely going to be passed over. If you’re 35 and over and you currently have a job, you’re probably going to be pretty worried about getting replaced or pushed out by somebody younger or cheaper.

Lily Jamali: Thirty-five is not exactly geriatric. I understand the draw to find cheaper labor, but you’re throwing away a lot of experience, right, if you’re hiring?

Jennifer Pak stands in a red blouse and a black blazer.
Jennifer Pak

Pak: You’d think so. But notoriously, in the tech sector, there are long work hours: you work from 9am to 9pm, six days a week, or even midday to midnight, seven days a week. And all of the mega-tech firms do this. Plus, you’ve got 11 million graduates this year alone. So you’ve got a lot of choices. And here’s how a coder named Nathan explained it to me: he says companies want fresh chives. What he means is coders and engineers are a dime a dozen here. And he says young folks have got full batteries. So while people say that you’re going to be swept out of the tech sector by 35, nowadays he thinks you’re more likely out by the age of 30. And what he’s really referring to there is the economic sluggishness that’s happening here.

Jamali: But if you’re saying that the economy isn’t doing so well, presumably, there’s less work. So why do people need to work such long hours?

Pak: Well, part of it is because the client wants the project to be finished faster. But a lot of times I’ve heard it’s just for show. One of the tech workers told us that when he was brought into this mega-tech firm, the manager told him “Look, if you finished all of your tasks for the day, and it’s 9pm, if your coworkers are still sitting there, don’t even think about leaving. Plant yourself at your desk.” And you need to show your bosses that you are very eager to work hard for your money, basically.

Jamali: And is it mostly, from what you can tell, Chinese tech companies? Or are we seeing this kind of age discrimination from multinationals that are operating in China as well?

Pak: Well, there aren’t many massive tech sectors that are doing the kind of work like Alibaba or Tencent are allowed to do. So yeah, it’s mainly Chinese firms. But overall, this is not just the tech sector, it’s spreading out to other areas that we’re hearing from people. They feel they’re aged out or that they’re too old once they hit the age of 35. Even in factories, you could see that they post a lot of job ads that specifically state the age and they want them below the age of 40, for example, or sometimes even 35, depending if it’s textiles, or if it’s in the low end of the tech sector making, for example, iPhone accessories.

Jamali: Years ago, I went to a support group in Silicon Valley for older workers who had been laid off from tech jobs. Some of them had been laid off years earlier. And many of them were educated in hardware and now needed a different skill set, because so much was happening in the software space. Is this the kind of scenario you’re seeing in China as well, that because the tech is evolving so fast people over a certain age just don’t have the skills they need?

Pak: I wouldn’t say that that’s the same scenario. It really comes down to the fact that companies have a large labor pool to choose from, even though it is shrinking. At the same time, they want them young so they can “squeeze them dry.” I mean, 12-hour work days, seven days a week, that’s not easy for anyone. Like, I have a housing agent here, who used to be in the tech sector. He was in it for about a year. He was a software engineer, and he just said “I had enough.” He’s like, “my body can’t take it.” So you have a lot of people who are doing these excessive overtimes, which is very prevalent in all industries in China, because there is this need that the whole pay structure is very odd in the tech sector, not so much because they are very well paid. And maybe perhaps that’s why the employers feel they’re entitled to get them to work as much overtime as they want. Whereas in the factories, for example, they get base pay, and every additional piece that they finish for the day or for the week or for the month, then they get extra compensation for it. And that’s how they make up and get proper salaries. And so it’s the idea where you work harder: the more you work, the more money that you earn. And that’s pretty prevalent across all of China’s economy. But in the tech sector, I would say people people are very aware that they need to upskill and upgrade their their skills.

I don’t think that’s the issue because, again, we’re only talking about 35 year olds, right? They’ve only been in the workforce for a few years, not even a decade. When I first came in 2017 for Marketplace in Shanghai, people were telling me “yeah, I’m going to be aged out at 35.” Now, they’re talking about 30, because of the way things are. And as I said, they’re already thinking of a second career like this guy, Nathan, we just heard from. I said: Well, what’s the potential career you could take after the high tech sector? And he said, “Well, I could be a rideshare driver. But you need a five-year driving license for that. So maybe I should start at 32 to make sure I can qualify.” A lot of it is because China’s tech sector, yes, you do have very high end coding that you need, but in general, a lot of these companies, they don’t need such experience. They just need people to keep churning out the work. And so for people like him, who don’t have a university degree, maybe it’s a technical college degree, they feel like they’re a dime a dozen. I mean, he basically told us that you could have two fresh graduates replacing him and having a pay that’s less than what he’s getting paid right now.

Jamali: And it sounds like at this point workers don’t feel like they have a lot of choices. But was that always the case? Was there a point where there was more resistance coming from the labor force?

Pak: I would say it happened pre-pandemic. Coders went on GitHub to start calling out this insane work schedule. The 9-9-6 is going to lead to them going to the intensive care unit. Unfortunately, that fizzled out once the pandemic started and right now the economy is recovering very slowly. So people are sort of made to feel like they should be grateful that they even have a job.

More on this

So where are all of these laid-off Chinese tech workers going? Jennifer has been looking into that, too. In a video story she did this summer, she follows a pair of tech workers from Shenzhen, known as the “Silicon Valley of hardware” to the Chinese countryside as they attempt to switch careers to farming. One was an IT product manager, the other was a long-time coder. They are now running a specialty citrus farm.

They’re hoping others will follow them from tech to agriculture; and apparently, that’s something the Chinese government wants, too.

Jennifer also speaks to an IT worker who’s considering a similar switch, but going from a desk job to, say, pig farming. Kind of a tough sell for some.

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Daisy Palacios Senior Producer
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