China’s unemployment

Sociology theories related to the social problem of unemployment youth in mainland China


In contemporary China, the unemployment rate has climbed up for recent years and soared up to 9.4% until 2008(Chinese Academic of Social Science,2008). The surveys in majority countries reveal that unemployment rates are highest for youth groups (White & Smith, 1994). In Hong Kong the unemployment rate of youth age 15 to 19 is the most startling high at 25.8%) comparing the general rate at 5.6%(Census and Statistic Department, 2009).It is believed that mainland China experience the similar trend. The two main components of unemployment youth in mainland are young migrant-worker and recent college graduates. The percentage of unemployment recent college graduates has occupied as high as 12% in 2008 and it is predicted that the population will expand rapidly to 5.6 million in 2009(Chinese Academic of Social Science,2008).

Unemployment youth is a complex social problem needed to be solved urgent. Different sociologists have diverse definitions of social problem, but there are some common features to distinguish social problem from social condition, social issue and personal problem. Firstly, social problem evolves from disputed social condition and consensus social issue. The origin and affect of social problem is social itself (Charon, 2001).Secondly, a social problem is said to exist to the extent that it is so widespread that it affects a large number of people. Namely, the amount of individuals who involve in the social problem is huge as well as the number of people who are influenced is large(Charon, 2001; Zastrow, 2000).Additionally, a full-blown social problem also bases on a widespread agreement that the situation is incompatible with social values and norms and needs to be remedied(Rubington & Weinberg, 2003).The youth unemployment is identified as a social problem with its gradual increased amount and agreed-upon recognition by majority of people. A significant number of people agree that high unemployment rate of youth exerts profound social influences and urgency to be altered. Additionally, a matter worthy to be noticed is that a relatively large number of long-term unemployment or underemployment (partially unemployed) young people become to neets group. Neets (not in employment, education or training) in mainland China context means “啃老族” which emphasizes that neet youth subsist on parents. The prevalence of neets may cause profound negative influence both to the family and the society.

In this paper, I will focus on using two theories to analyze the problem of youth unemployment and analyze socioeconomic reasons of this social problem in perspective of different theories.

Neo-Marxian economic sociology theory and youth unemployment

Many neo-Marists make an effort to adapt Marxian theory to analyze the economic realities of modern capitalist society. Harry Braverman (1974) considered the labor process and the exploitation of the worker the essential of Marxian theory. In contemporary society, few people own the means of production thus the majorities including manual workers, most white-collar workers and service workers are forced to sell their labor power. According to Braverman views, capitalist control and exploitation as well as the derivative processes of mechanization and rationalization extend the control over workers (Ritzer, 2008).

Braverman concentrated on capitalists` control over labor power of their employees. He believed that the division of labor subdivided not only society but also humans. The detailed subdivision of society may make some contribution to the individual and species while the subdivision of human capabilities exerts a disastrous effect: “The subdivision of the individual when carried on without regard to human capabilities and needs is a crime against the person and against humanity”(Braverman, 1974,p.73).The capitalist utilizes specialization in the workplace to break down the work process into highly specialized and detailed activities in order to increase the control of management and the productivity. Therefore the worker becomes detail worker although “he never voluntarily converts himself into a lifelong detail worker”(Braverman, 1974,P.78).The scientific management is the best way to achieves the monopoly over work-related knowledge and craftsmanship then to control every labor activity and labor power. “In the end, the work itself was left without any meaningful skill, content, or knowledge” (Braverman, 1974; Ritzer, 2008, p.298).

To Braverman`s viewpoint, in the process of technical and scientific development the evolution of machinery is also a mean to increases the control over worker and labor process. As Marx explained “from the moment that the tool proper is taken from man, and fitted into a mechanism, a machine takes the place of a mere implement”(Marx).Thence the worker become to be controlled by the machine and “the skill is built into machine rather than being left for the worker to acquire”(Ritzer, 2008,p.298).

Notwithstanding the socialist political system, the mainland China particularly the southeast region reveals more features of market-oriented economic system. The hasty modernization and urbanization of Chinese society destroy the previous agriculture ecosystem in rural areas. A great many of agricultural laborers forfeit their ownership of land namely lost the capability to produce for their own need. Therefore large amounts of rural youth laborers pour into labor market in the city. Most of them are employed in the private-owned factories then become migrant-workers. Following the logic of Braverman`s labor and monopoly capital theory the specialized work process in a factory requires few professional skills and contributes workers hardly any professional abilities. The machinery makes workers turn into a dispensable and replaceable component of an automobile assembly line. Hence they become “detail workers” who are controlled easily by the capitalist and only get the least wage. This managerial control is also caused occupation instability of migrant-workers. These low-paid and unskilled workers position in a precarious status which means they can be dismissed by the capitalist at any time and hardly find a new job in a short time. In sum, the managerial control and machinery is the pivotal reason of persistent unemployment and underemployment for youth migrant-workers.

In the other hand, the managerial control and machinery also exacerbate the difficulties in hunting job for college graduates. Specialization and mechanization in work place diminish the demand for professional knowledge and abilities. Certain private-owned enterprise may appreciate the skilled youths who graduate from professional school rather than recent college graduates with less practical experience. Hence college graduates can not possess superiority in labor market as before particular for the third industry. Additionally, the specialization enables the employers who seek to progressively cheapen the labor of workers to pay the least expense for workers. However, the four-year educational cost enhances the standard of excepted salary for graduates and their family. Therefore even if some working opportunity is applied to a college graduate, he or she may choose to become unemployment voluntarily because the wage is lower than his or her expectation.

Social stratification theory and youth unemployment

Weber`s social stratification theory

The social problem of youth unemployment can be explained by social stratification theory as well. Social stratification can be defined as “structured inequalities between different groupings of people” (Giddens, 1993, p.212) .In Max Weber’s viewpoint, class, status and parties are components of social stratification.

Weber defined the term of class as any group of people in the same class situation: they have in common economic interests, a specific causal component of their life chances and the conditions of the labor markets (Turner, Gerth, & Mills, 1993). The society can be divided into to four class systems: upper class (the wealthy who own or directly control productive resources), middle class (most white-collar workers and professionals), working class (blue-collar or manual workers) and peasants (people engaged in traditional agricultural production).According to Weber, class divisions derive not only from control lever of the means of production, but from diverse economic situations. Reversely such resources affect occupational status of people and the level of marketable (Giddens, 1993, pp.215-218).

Social status refers to the “positive or negative privilege with respect to social prestige” in terms of honor and life style (Parsons, 1964; Turner, et al., 1993,p.428).Weber believed that stratificatory status may be based on the class status directly and have relative correlation with property and managerial positions. Positively privileged status groups have high prestige in a given social order meanwhile the negatively privileged status groups are deprived advantage of opportunities open to majorities (Parsons, 1964).

Whereas the class is within economic status, the status is about social order, parties is related to the acquisition of social power which can exert an influence to social stratification independently of class and status. Party is defined as “a group of individuals who work together because they have common backgrounds, aims or interests” and also could be seen as “agencies that are empowered to alter the opportunity structure in various ways”(Giddens, 1993; Parkin, 1982; Turner, et al., 1993,p.219).Weber pointed that parties may represent class situation or status situation as well as ephemeral or enduring structures(Swedberg, 1999).Parties representing different political ideas and identity struggle for the influence to both party staff and followers. However, “political action” as Weber said, “is always determined by the ‘principle of small number’” thereby party politics is “properly the business of elites rather than masses” (Parkin, 1982; Turner, et al., 1993; Weber, 1968).In conclusion, classes, status groups and parties represents a distinct distribution of power in the community and these three dimensions interact to contribute one`s social identity.

The social stratification is not only an indication of individual`s occupational status but in turn affect the types of job people are able to obtain. The prior research found that home background, intelligence, personality, school type, and educational attainment all had significant influences on unemployment(Furnham, 1994).All these factors are associated with individual`s class, social status and parties. According to Weber`s theory, one of the significances of a positively privileged class is that “they may monopolize the privileges of socially advantageous kinds of education so far as these involve expenditures” (Parsons, 1964).In mainland China, conflict over inequality distribution of education resources between distinct classes has triggered public concern. The peasants and most or working class have limited to schooling institutions and educational information owing to poverty or rural residence. As a result they become less marketable in the labor market. Additionally in urban China, urban residents got more favor over rural-urban migrants in labor market (Appleton, Knight, Song, & Xia, 2006).While the peasant-workers are constrained to encounter obstacles to enter the labor market owing to their present class stratum, it is ironic that some young adults from middle class and upper class family choose to be voluntary unemployed even if they have ability and opportunity to find a job. The sufficient property enables them to pursuit enjoyable and comfortable life without hard working.

In Weber`s viewpoint, “a formal process of education which may consist in empirical or rational training” contributed to the positive privileged social status with respect to prestige(Parsons, 1964).Two decades ago, college graduates in mainland China were considered as elite groups and their professional win them “certain legal privileges” owning to the high quality college education and rare quota to enrollment(Parkin, 1982).However, Chinese government began to stop allocating jobs for university graduates in 1996 and the amount of college students has witnessed a sharp growth since 1999 as a result of the education revolution. The extensive expanding enrollment of college provides more studying opportunities but also causes the decline of teaching quality and competitiveness of students. Therefore college graduates who used to possess status privileges with a high prestige turn into a disadvantage group with a low prestige. Contemporarily recent college graduates undergo tremendous difficulties and pressure during searching a job. After a series of unsuccessful job-searching experiences, some graduates may decide to retreat from active job hunt. A survey demonstrates that 19.4% of Chinese graduates escaped finding a job and became neets in 2007(Mycos, 2008).

Sharp segmentation in labor market can be found among distinct parties as well. The political and institutional arrangements provide certain groups privileged access to employment (Appleton, et al., 2006).In mainland job priority is given to the Communist Party member in certain occupation such as government staff, mainstream media and stated-owned enterprises. The political power also plays a subtle role in job searching. With the influence of official-oriented history and planned economy system, Chinese Government officials seem occupy a noticeable political influence which can enable them to grab employment priority for their relatives. The unfair distribution of politic power leads to inequality of competition in some occupational areas.

Social Mobility theory

The youth unemployment problem also can be explained by social mobility theory. Social mobility is described as the movement of an individual or social object from one socioeconomic position to another (Giddens, 1993; Sorokin, 1959). Sorokin (1959) defined two principal types of social mobility. The horizontal social mobility means the social transmission between same level groups while the vertical mobility refers to social climbing or social sinking from one social stratum to another.

There are two basic means of achieve social mobility: the rule of ascription and the rule of achievement which relate to different social, economic and political structures respectively. According to the rule of ascription, individual`s opportunity of upward or downward social mobility is determined by “his or her inherited social ascription” which means “a specific social status can only be attained or possessed by members of a particular social stratum, leaving few opportunities to members of the other social strata even if they have corresponding capability” such as intergenerational mobility(Bashor, 2005; Giddens, 1993,pp.52-53).In contract, rule of achievement indicates that social mobility is related individual`s personal talent and virtue. Both rules are applied to explain social mobility in China. In traditional Chinese society, the heritance of class ascription took a dominant role to determine people`s social stratum and mobility opportunity. Nowadays social ascription exists as well but there is a fluctuation called “law of the three generations” which represents the rule of achievement and “dynamic cycles of vertical social mobility”. It means that social positions can be changed in terms of individual`s capability and efforts (Bashor, 2005; Sorokin, 1959).

The social stratum and social mobility affect individual`s career situation and in turn one`s occupation determine his or her mobility opportunity. It is witnessed that modern cities in southeast China are flooded with young adults even some young adolescents from rural villages in middle and western areas. These young people experience a transmission of social class from peasant to migrant-worker or peasant-worker. It is assumed that the motivation of this change is upward social mobility. According to the research conducted by Research Group for Social Structure in Contemporary China the social mobility of peasant-workers is mainly related to the occupational mobility(Bashor, 2005).However, the instability and inconstancy of peasant-workers` jobs limits their social mobility extensively. Additionally, existence and structure of social networks is believed to have a significant influence to chances of occupational mobility as well as job attainment (Korpi, 2001).The lack of social networks in urban city contributes to unemployment of young peasant-workers. Some first-generation peasant-workers may migrant to city and find a job successfully which seems increase their family and themselves social stratum and social mobility. However, it is relatively difficult for them to have the equal civil right with the urban citizens. Their children are still hard to have the equal opportunity of educational and occupational mobility comparing to offspring of urban inhabitants.

According the rules of achievement, the higher educational level can cause a positive effect on one`s climb-up social mobility. However, the considerable large amount of unemployment youth with college education level makes us confused. The prior research revealed that the relevance between father`s occupation and children`s occupational status attainment particularly the first job has been increasing sharply. In addition, in contemporary society there is still a serious conflict between “current market-driven social mobility” and “institutional barriers left by the planned economy system” (Bashor, 2005). Registered residents status can still be an obstacle during job hunting for college graduates in some big cities such as Beijing and Shanghai. Owing to the remarkable impact of registered residence system, youth may have less chance to change social mobility to a more developed area.


Generally speaking, social stratification theory explains the inner reason of unemployment youth. Personal social stratum which effected by one`s class, social status and party have a determinable influence on his or her ability to enter labor market in Chinese contemporary society. The young adults who position in a vulnerable social stratus tend to have less job attainment and mobility opportunity. The change of industry structure in mainland China is considered as external accelerator to youth unemployment. Managerial control and machinery decline the market demand for laborers and lead the labor market more competitive.


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Turner, B. S., Gerth, H. H., & Mills, C. W. (1993). From Max Weber:Essays in Sociology Padstow: Cornwall.

Weber, M. (1968). Economy and Society (Vol. 2). London: University of California Press.

White, M., & Smith, D. J. (1994). The causes of persistently high unemployment. In A. C. Peterssen & J. T. Mortimer (Eds.), Youth unemployment and society (pp. 104). Cambridge: Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge.

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