In China it is called the "iron rice bowl" - getting a job in the civil service and working for the government. Traditionally a post in the civil service was regarded as a respectable, secure job for life with enviable welfare benefits. Competition for these positions has always been fierce as thousands of applicants every year suffer the grueling exams and their families mobilize every network available to edge their children into these positions.
This year it is a little different. The students who were born in 1990 have become the majority of the university graduates in the country.
Last month Shanghai saw 53,000 applicants sit the city's civil service examination, a drop of 21 percent compared with last year. And it's not just Shanghai. Around the country the number of people applying for government positions declined 6 percent year-on-year. While the applicants have found that they have less competition, education experts are wondering if this heralds a new era in employment trends, an era where young people, dominated by those born in the 1990s, have a totally different approach to their careers.
Picking up on the changes, some businesses have already modified their recruitment advertising on campus. But a number of human resources managers in the city say they are finding handling the new imaginative and energetic young employees a big headache. And young people, about to make an independent living, have to find how to balance their own needs with their careers.
Happiness VS pay
China's mainstream education website edunews.net.cn recently summarized in a report the career attitudes of three generations: for those born in the 1970s - I am a workaholic and proud of that; for those born in the 1980s - If I have to work overtime, pay me extra; for those born in the 1990s - I want satisfaction and no overtime!
While there's no official national survey supporting this conclusion, a recent study in Hubei Province that interviewed 1,500 senior students indicated that only 20 percent of them would like a job in a State-owned business. More favored working for a multinational company or a private company.
The Shanghai Municipal Education Commission told the Global Times that it had not conducted surveys on these lines, but believed the general trend for young people's career preferences had not changed. "I don't think all graduates born in the 90s seek happiness and satisfaction above pay. The attitudes vary as each individual's family situation varies," said Fu Jianqin, the director of the commission's Higher Education Department. "Above all the overall employment situation will be just as tough as that of last year." About 24 percent of last year's graduates in the city were still unemployed by the end of 2011. This year the city expects to greet another 178,000 graduates.
Yet employers have somehow decided that young people today prefer contentment and job satisfaction and thus have changed their recruitment strategies on campus. "We hold regular outings, events and trips to the cinema for our employees and we encourage them to bring their families or friends so they can bond with colleagues and feel at home in the office," said a human resources manager surnamed Wei at a recruitment campaign in Tongji University last week. Wei works for a German design company.
Another leading international advertising company is also playing the "happiness" card. "We provide our new recruits with a free environment for their development. The promotion system works without the rigid requirements of seniority. Any good performance by an employee will be rewarded in a timely manner," said the company's CEO at a recruitment campaign at the Shanghai University of Engineering Science.
During a campus recruitment campaign, the country's leading online shopping platform Taobao made this promise to students: "Once a student with potential is employed by Taobao, he can become a core technical talent within two years and will become a competitive player in this industry within five or six years." The quote was attributed to Wen De who supervises the search technology for the website.
Confident but undecided
When they attend job interviews or intern in companies, they might dress maturely and talk confidently, but many of the graduates born in the 1990s are really undecided about what they want in a career.
"I've had interviews with different companies, like insurance companies, media organizations and banks. Given my major, there isn't any specific field that I have to work in after graduation," said Xu Xin, a senior student who majored in English language and literature at Fudan University.
Xu is trying to hit a balance for her future job - she wants appropriate challenges but not an overload of work. The 22-year-old has already rejected an offer from a State-owned company because she thought that job would be too boring. "I'm hoping for a job that will let me travel frequently to other cities and, ideally, to other countries. That would broaden my horizons," Xu said.
But she made it clear that she wouldn't be following her senior schoolmates and going for a position at one of the giant accounting firms in town, which do offer opportunities for business trips in China and abroad, but are notorious for demanding that their employees work overtime.
"I've been to several campus recruitment campaigns for different businesses. One offer was particularly attractive. This multinational company promised good prospects, fixed vacations and free trips abroad every year. But I happened to know someone working there who told me that working overtime is normal in that company. The overtime pay is good, but I don't want a life like that," Xu said.
Another senior student from Tongji University surnamed Song has different concerns about a future employer. "I'm fine with challenges or having to work overtime. What I care most is whether I can work happily in the environment and if the corporate culture is acceptable," Song said.
Wang Lin, a senior student at Fudan University, said that like many of her classmates, she was confident about securing a job, but was not particular about her first job since it would just be a springboard. "That's where I will first land in society. I will try to find better opportunities later on and hop to another position," Wang said.
Unlike the graduates born in the 1980s, who were comparatively conservative in job interviews, the new generation doesn't conceal their curiosity about what is involved in the work on these occasions, human resources experts say.
"They go into the details like what welfare benefits are available, the rules for vacations, if they'll need to work overtime frequently and if the company will reimburse meals. In the past, we mostly talked about the nature of this job and interviewees were always trying their best to showcase what they were capable of instead of asking what the company could offer. Things have changed a lot and we're learning to adapt," said Wei, who's been the HR manager in the German company for six years.
"It's fine that they know how to protect their interests. But it's a bit pathetic that so many have failed to tell us what they can give us. While acting like adults many don't have much of an idea of exactly what they want for their careers," Wei added.
"A job is not a priority for this generation. In interviews many young people are simply stating their personal feelings. This is a general trend among the graduates born in the 1990s," said Feng Lijuan, a human resources expert with 51Job Incorporated, an online human resources service provider in Shanghai.
These might be individual cases but employers have been reporting new problems when they hire young people. "Whether we express interest in hiring them or not, they all look indifferent. We're kind of scared of making a further move," said Zhou, a human resources manager with a private company.
Zhou's company recruited a new graduate last year. "We don't leave them off our recruitment list because they were born in the 1990s. We believe people of this generation can bring us passion and energy," said Zhou. But Zhou was surprised when the young man asked for a salary raise three months after being employed. When Zhou rejected the raise, the young man resigned. "Maybe people of this generation become emotional more easily," said Zhou, who was born in the 1970s.
According to other human resources managers, these young people offer a number of reasons when they quit as interns or full-time employees: They cannot see a future in a job there; the food in the canteen is unappetizing; metro trains are too crowded in rush hours; the pay is too low to match inflation; there are not enough women in the office ...
Human resources expert Yang Shuhong was quoted by the Jiefang Daily recently saying that many of those born in the 1990s enjoy a comfortable family life and therefore they feel free from the pressure of having to make a living.
"As a result, they sometimes act without considering the consequences. They have a will of their own. And they're moody at work. Job hopping is common and normal for them," said Yang.
The new generation has also found a different way of presenting themselves in resumes. In the section where applicants list their strengths some have been writing "good at telling jokes," "good at observing the stars," and "good at ballroom dancing."
Some of the graduates born in the 1990s say that society does not really understand them. The Horizon Research Consultancy Group surveyed more than 2,000 of this new generation in Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou, Wuhan and Chengdu. And the results, published at the end of last year, indicated that 17.80 percent defined success as "family happiness" while 16.30 percent regarded "career fulfilment" as success. Many emphasized succeeding without help from family connections.
The jobs that everyone wants
Edunews.net.cn summarized the top 10 jobs most attractive to the graduates born in the 1990s.
1 Weibo account operator
With the growing popularity of Weibo, the commercial value of a Weibo account with thousands of followers is obvious. Some netizens run full-time Weibo accounts, updating followers with the latest news, jokes or videos. They profit by running advertising that targets their followers.
2 Career development mentor
Shanghai needs at least 30,000 career development mentors at the moment but there are only a few hundred accredited professionals. For many graduates this profession is one that helps others and speeds their own personal growth. But this profession demands a high level of qualifications and a lot of work experience. Some graduates regard this as an ultimate choice and set out to acquire experience in the meantime.
3 Game tester
These people play games yet to be released to uncover any problems and help improve them. This job is particularly appealing to young people. But being a master at playing games is different to being a qualified game tester. Applicants must have a good grounding in technology.
4 Island caretaker
In 2009 Australia's Queensland tourism authority launched a promotion looking for a caretaker for a tropical island. The beautiful setting and the attractive salary package made the job desirable for anyone, but especially the graduates born in the 1990s. It was described internationally as "the best job in the world" but even this demanded the applicants had skills in tourist reception, travel planning, hotel management, financial management and the ability to survive in the wild. Sadly there are very few jobs like this available today.
5 Taobao modeling
It's another form of traditional fashion modeling. Models showcase the clothes or products for businesses on taobao.com. While most of the models are employed by small companies, some lucky models have been discovered by famous brands or have been offered work with television stations.
6 Financial planner
All financial organizations are hiring financial planners. Many graduates born in the 1990s find the job attractive because they also learn how to manage their own wealth effectively. But financial planners have to be specially trained.
7 Fashion designer
Fashion designer or fashion editors might not be as fascinating as they are in films like The Devil Wears Prada, but this industry continues to attract young people. Experts say there are some problems as the fashion scene develops in China so employment in this field means a lot of hard work.
Illustrators design posters for games and films, or work for books, newspapers or magazines. This profession is growing and offers good prospects for talented young artists - especially as the country's Internet and gaming sectors grow.
9 Taobao store owner
It takes a comparatively small amount to set up and it's easy to open your own store on Taobao. Office hours and the location are up to you. This is work that is popular with many young people who have tried this in college. But the competition is growing fierce.
Witkey is web-based system where people exchange knowledge, wisdom, experience and technology for profit. China has around 25 million Witkey users but as there is no limit to the kind of work they can undertake there is no set salary either.
Wang Yufeng contributed to this story