Millennial workers dread turning 35 in China, the age employees believe ‘old age’ begins
By Kwan Wei Kevin Ta
People around the world may fear the gray hairs, crow’s feet, and stagnation that come with a midlife crisis. But millennials in China fear hitting an age milestone thought to be a death sentence for one’s career: 35.
These anxieties have been summed up in the phrase “Curse of 35,” a concept and a hashtag that’s gone viral on China’s Twitter-like, Weibo. It refers to the typical Chinese employer’s preference for hiring workers who haven’t reached the sell-by date of their 35th birthday.
“I am scared that I won’t be able to keep my job, and then I will have to go around looking for a job while dealing with the employer’s temper. It’s just too scary and stressful,” one user wrote on Weibo of the “Curse of 35.”
“Life is also tough. I am single and I don’t have enough money to buy a house. Where will I stay when I get old? Landlords don’t really rent to the elderly. And it’s tough trying to earn money when you’re old,” the post continued. “In this life, one can only wander about with no real place to go.”
Many people have echoed similar sentiments on Weibo, with some saying that turning 35 would be a tremendous setback for their career prospects.
“We have entered a vicious cycle,” another person wrote. “You’re too old to work at 35 but too young to retire at 60.”
The situation isn’t helped by the fact that the Chinese government isn’t shy about perpetuating ageism in its drive to get younger people to sign up for civil-service jobs. Most entry-level positions in the Chinese civil service are open to those aged 18 to 35. There have been moves from Beijing to raise the hiring-age limit to 40, but that applies only to those who hold master’s or doctoral degrees.
“Since the state is practicing discriminatory hiring, private employers probably feel like they have nothing to worry about in doing the same,” Tianlei Huang, a research fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, told Insider.
And it’s not just about finding work — Chinese workers being phased out at what was previously viewed as the prime of their careers means their livelihoods could be seriously affected.
Tania Lennon, an executive director at the International Institute for Management Development, told Insider that the “35-year mark is significant because it is when you enter the peak of your earning capability.” Lennon said this trend could create “significant problems” in Chinese society if people didn’t earn enough to build up their financial reserves.
Already, some have voiced their worries about being forcibly aged out of the workforce.
“I just turned 34 and lost my job three months ago. Will I be able to survive this year?” one person wrote on Weibo.
The preference for younger workers is in part due to a workplace culture that requires people to clock long hours on the job. Better known as “996,” Chinese workers who want to get ahead are expected to observe a punishing schedule, working from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week.
As such, employers favor those who are young, healthy, and willing to pull long hours for the hustle life.
“Younger workers are indeed in better health conditions than those who are older, and they tend to have fewer family obligations than those aged above 35, so they can work longer hours,” the Peterson Institute for International Economics’ Huang said.
Quy Huy, an INSEAD professor who is the academic director of the institute’s China Initiative, told Insider that companies in China often operated on the misguided assumption that those older than 35 “are less flexible in terms of work.” He said these companies also wrongly assumed that hitting 35 meant a worker would be “less technologically savvy” and “slower in terms of learning new ways of working.”
And it isn’t just about hiring workhorses. Companies are also hoping to cash in on the record youth-unemployment rates. At least one in five Chinese youths was unemployed in the second quarter of 2023, per China’s National Bureau of Statistics.
“At this point in time, youth unemployment is high, so many young workers are willing to work for less. So companies are simply responding to this,” Kelvin Seah, a senior economics lecturer at the National University of Singapore, told Insider.
“Why look for an older worker when you can find a younger worker for a fraction of the cost?” Seah continued.