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China’s youth revolt with ‘ugly’ clothes for work

Young people in China are embracing "ugly" work outfits.

Young people in China are embracing "ugly" work outfits. Photo: Douyin

China’s youth are again taking part in a creative rebellion of sorts against the gruelling pressures of work, one pair of tracksuit pants at a time.

There is generally an expectation that when dressing for work, one is polished and tidy at the very least, although work attire has become more casual over time.

However, young people in China are sparking a new trend, and taking it to a whole other level on social media.

People are taking to Douyin – the Chinese-exclusive counterpart of TikTok, owned by the same parent company, ByteDance – to share their “ugly” work attire.

For months, videos tagged with #grossoutfitforwork #uglyclothesshouldbeforwork have been going viral as young Chinese people show off how they are getting ready for work, putting on their worst outfits.

From tracksuit pants to slippers, Gen Z is clearly making a statement: They don’t care how they are perceived in a work environment that doesn’t care about them.

One user, apparently from Sichuan, China, according to her Douyin profile, claimed her boss scolded her for her outfit, which was picked out that morning so she could brave the cold weather.

Over what appeared to be thermals, she layered tracksuit pants, a sweater dress and a furry leopard print-lined jacket, which she zipped up all the way. She matched it all with slippers.

She’s not alone. Others are rugged up in mismatched items, which would anger plenty of bosses around the world.

Bohan Qiu is the 29-year-old founder of Boh Project, a creative, public relations and consultancy company based in Shanghai and Seoul.

He offered some perspective on why China’s youth are rejecting workplace norms.

“They’re kind of like, why bother when your work and future life prospect is not looking that bright,” Qiu told CNN.

He admitted that people who work for him tend to dress more casually. Tracksuit pants are acceptable, as long as the worker looks “cool” and he believes this trend seen online will continue.

China’s youth rebel against work culture

It’s not the first time young people in China have staged a rebellion against the workplace norms in the country.

In China, young people grew to be so disillusioned with work and life they let go of their aspirations – and then came a trend called tang ping, which means lying flat.

“The popularity of this word reflects the stress and disappointment young people feel,” Jia Miao, an assistant professor of sociology from New York University Shanghai told CNBC News in 2022.

Miao explained that tang ping is the rejection of working too much, doing the bare minimum and just letting things be.

When long hours and “toxic” work environments took a toll, people in China threw “job quitting” parties.

Admittedly they are at a disadvantage, compared to older generations.

The ‘complex’ unemployment problem

According to CNN, the latest government report into unemployment of people aged 16 to 24 in China was 14.9 per cent, indicating many are graduating into a difficult and competitive job market.

CNN also noted that figure excluded more than 60 million students and in the past, the unemployment rate was over 20 per cent among that demographic.

Christian Yao, a senior lecturer at the Victoria University of Wellington, previously wrote for The Conversation that youth unemployment in China was a complex issue “as a result of government policy and society’s expectations”.

He wrote there are systems that prevent people from rural areas taking jobs in urban areas and the “ant tribe” phenomenon has left highly educated people in low-paying jobs with little chance of moving up.

“These young people can’t accumulate social capital, leading to a negative cycle that’s hard to escape,” he said.

“This diminishes their return on their investment in education and highlights a breakdown in the career ecosystem.”

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