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Why this “Involuted” Generation of Young Chinese Are “Lying Flat”

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Alex Zhang has been working at one of China’s leading telecommunication companies for two years. A 26-year-old male engineering worker, Zhang has asked us to use a pseudonym in lieu of his real name. What he has to say about his company is not exactly flattering.

He is of the belief that the working environment at his company has become stagnant. That is despite the fact that his co-workers are staying later and later in the office, sending more and more project updates in group chats after hours, and volunteering more frequently to work on weekends.

Everyone seems to be busier.

The act of appearing busy is now as important as actually being busy in China. One of the biggest factors that managers in companies around China are taking into account when deciding whether someone can get a promotion or not is work performance. However, according to Zhang, at his company it “literally just equals longer working hours.”

“Busy, but not fulfilled,” Zhang says about his daily work schedule, before adding, “demanding bosses are glad to see everybody become increasingly devoted to their job. However, what other values have been created by this attitude?”

Zhang told RADII that the number of people who can be promoted at one time is fixed. “At first people would try to reach their full potential, but there is always a threshold at which a higher number of working hours doesn’t mean a higher performance anymore, but will only bring anxiety and stress.”

“On the other hand, as some people realize they have to stay overtime anyways, they slack off work during the day.”

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“Involution,” or neijuan (内卷) in Chinese, is a rising buzzword in China, referring to the status of not making any progress and becoming stagnant. The term has been all over the Chinese internet since last year.

Originally used in agriculture to describe the bottleneck stage when farm inputs, such as labor and fertilizer, no longer yield a higher rate of production, the term has been widely used across different industries, such as education and the public sector, to talk about organizational efficiency.

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Involution was first picked up inside Chinese universities last Spring as a way to describe the unreasonable workload every student has to face in order to get competitive grades. It has since spread fast and come to refer to the insane work culture of big tech companies where 996 — namely, working from 9am – 9pm, 6 days a week — is prevalent. It also did not take long for tired workers from other sectors to talk about similarly dysfunctional work conditions they face, fueling heated discussions online.

A 27-year-old female employee working in the public sector in Shanghai, who wishes to remain anonymous, also believes that involution happens inside government agencies. “The evaluation system becomes more and more quantified, we have no choice but to chase after numbers endlessly. The more grassroots the department you work in, the more ‘involuted.'”

Given its virality, “involution” was listed as one of the top 10 internet slang terms of 2020 in China by the well-reputed literary magazine Yaowen Jiaozi 咬文嚼字.

With the rise of involution, and facing the exhausting and unrewarding rat race, millennials and Gen Z are beginning to choose “lying flat” — a new trending phrase popularized within the last few weeks, meant to reflect the resigned, unresisting and unbothered attitude that has been adopted by burnt out workers.

laying flat involution gif radii china

“Lying flat” (image: Weibo)

“I’m going to lay down first” (image: Weibo)

laying flat involution gif radii china

“Lying flat” (image: Weibo)

The term first appeared on the discussion forum Tieba on Chinese search engine Baidu, and gained traction on popular social networking site Douban, with more and more tired workers standing up to echo this lifestyle.

As the term grew in popularity, Chinese state media weighed in with its own criticism. “Young people should have positive visions for the future,” said a widespread opinion piece by Xinhua on May 20. “As long as you are diligent enough, you can still achieve self-realization.”

The article stirred further debate on social media about whether it is the right attitude for young people to employ. The hashtag #Whether choosing “lying flat” is shameful# has been reviewed more than 530 million times on microblogging site Weibo.

“I lie down, you involute. Neither of us is the other’s business,” was one of the most popular comments on a related post.

Additionally, on a Weibo poll on people’s attitudes when it comes to “laying flat,” more than 241,000 people participated, with more than 75% of respondents saying that they are at least somewhat accustomed to “lying flat.”

Besides being used to refer to life in the workplace, other major areas that “lying flat” takes place is in marriage, consumerism and social activities. Feeling less empowered, some young people have become indifferent to getting married, having kids, and making large purchases.

Additionally, while China’s “three-child policy” is making waves on the internet, some netizens are responding with sarcastic comments that point to the institutional issues within education and housing, as well as the discrimination female employees face in the workplace, all of which are underlying reasons behind people’s “lying down” philosophy on having children.

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The roots of this “laissez faire” attitude, according to 28-year-old Claire Fi (also a pseudonym) who works at an electric car startup in Shanghai, has a lot to do with the problems that exist at the operational and structural levels within institutions.

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“I am actually ‘lying flat’ at my current company. It is not like I did not try. When I first joined, I was very passionate about everything. I put in extra effort for every task and I wanted to be part of the solutions for the problems I saw, until I realized I cannot really make a change and I was actually not in control,” says Fi.

“Office politics, power struggles, miscommunication, and irresponsible managers — I got really tired. So basically I have changed to ‘lying flat’ now. I do my job, get off work on time, earn my paycheck, but don’t expect to do extra,” added Fi.

However, Fi does not think ‘lying flat’ is an entirely negative attitude. “Overall I am still a very positive person with goals in life, I just don’t want my efforts to go in vain anymore. Plus now I have switched my focus to my other passions in life, like a self-started media I maintain.”

Similar to what Fi says, Zhang also believes “lying flat” is not the first choice for the majority of young workers, but rather something they gradually adopted after balancing their expectations with the reality.”

In an ever-changing digital world, “lying flat” is a young person’s silent, disappointed and compromising protest to the involuted society behind them, and a self-protecting mechanism to combat an unfriendly system.

Cover image: Depositphotos

Siyuan Meng
Born and raised in Shaoxing, Siyuan lived in New York and Los Angeles prior to Shanghai. She likes going outdoors.