Chinese Gen Z Swimming Away from Tech Giants

Mona Jiang | Feb.23, 2023

Dashing into ByteDance’s human resources department, Li Tianqi starts another hectic day. With a scarf still hanging on her shoulder, she clicks open the internal website, “a page looks like Taobao” according to her, to sift through resumes from potential candidates. “Competition to hunt talents is ferocious because the talent pool for internet giants is increasingly limited,” she said, “we not only have to race against other tech giants, but also against departments within ourselves.” When Li is frowning over her monthly KPI, the Chinese tech youth of the Gen Z are swimming away from the big names coveted by their predecessors.

A recent report jointly issued by Tencent and People.cn research institute noted that compared with the Gen Y, the Gen Z put more weight on “realizing personal value”, “enjoying life”, and “gaining a sense of belonging” in pursuing a career. However, they are dismayed that the Chinese internet giants’ corporate culture is incompatible with their needs.

Gen Z: Loyal to Oneself

Jannie Lei, a 24-year-old computing postgraduate from the Imperial College London, became a software engineer in Ant Financial Service Group upon graduation. As a tech elite, Lei enjoyed a more than 50 thousand yuan pre-tax monthly income- unimaginable for most young graduates in China. Yet, having dragged himself through the Spring Sale, 618 Sale, and other frenetic events, Lei handed in his resignation at the eve of the “Double Eleven Big Sale” .

“Tasks flooded in incessantly. Whenever big events arrived, we had to work from 7:30 am to 11:30 pm, then we either slept in an arranged department or on the floor of the company corridor. Even when there was no big sale, we had only two days off in a month,” Lei said, “Moreover, when I finished extremely difficult tasks, my leader said nothing but ‘em’, which made me feel there’s no warmth or a sense of support.”

“When I was a postgraduate student, I aimed high in advancing my technical skills, but the work here made me feel unable to see the meaning of continuous advancement, or know the direction to which I should go,” Lei murmured, “so when I cast away my vanity, I resigned without hesitation.” Though the application needed to go through four levels of leadership, the process only took 7 minutes, Lei recollected. 

Afterward, other internet giants invited him, but Jannie Lei refused, “a trauma has been made, the light got a shade, and the courage needs time to recover.” Instead, he landed as an engineer in a branch of China Energy Investment Corporation, a state-owned company.

“Another reason why I refused internet giants is that I don’t want to miss the chance to savor life. Though my parents thought I shouldn’t quit the well-paid job, I don’t think so. You see, now I can have breakfast at 8:50 at a cafeteria, make a pot of tea at my desk before I start my work. I can also get off work on time, rambling through the moat, looking at children running around or people playing ice hockey. Now I have two days off every week! These are what I call ‘felicity’,” Lei confessed.

Tech Giants: an Incompatibility Culture

Being loyal to oneself has become the choice of more and more tech youth, but the internet giants are still slow in reacting to the trend.

“I would never work in this kind of company anymore,” Ma Guozhang, a computer science postgraduate student from Tsinghua University, said after a 3-month internship at Tencent. He worked in CSGI department and focused on the development and application of block chain technology.

Besides working overtime to midnight, Ma pointed out that, “Almost everyone is scrambling to become a manager. The competition among colleagues is like Gongdou (harem battle), making it impossible to establish camaraderie with them.” He added, “I felt that most of them didn’t love their jobs. Instead, they saw it as a tool for promotion. Such an environment is not conducive for creating good products, which explains why some engineers remained mediocre in tech giants, but hit success soon after they left the firms.

“For me, the ideal working place is a studio with about 20 people. We will try every route to improve our products together,” Ma said, “I plan to join a start-up after graduation. If it goes bankrupt, I wouldn’t be sad because I could gain invaluable experience from it.” After all, to Ma, “success is doing what I want to do, and happiness is having a small group of people who will support each other all the time. Happiness also means that as an individual, I have dreams to pursue at every stage of my life. ”

Past Tense and Future Tense

When the tech youth are describing their dreams in the future tense, the traditionally alluring big names such as “internet giants”, “Bei, Shang, Guang (abbreviation of Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou)” seems to become the past tense.

“It’s hard to have happiness in Beijing or big tech firms,” Cao Boyu, an algorithm engineer who joined Beijing Vine Valley Technology Corporate after graduation, said, “ All I have is anxiety and unpaid housing rent. Honestly, I start to feel it’s meaningless to struggle in the city that exhausts you and your parents financially and spiritually.” For Cao, happiness is “moving to a small city, where I can purchase a house and a car, and my girlfriend and I can have a root in a city. I can go home on time.”

Mei Haiyi, a 27-year-old SenseTime algorithm engineer working in Beijing, said, “In fact, I have a small dream, which is to become a digital nomad- having a remote job and travelling around the world.” Though the term “digital nomad” was created by Tsugio Makimoto in late 1990, it has gained traction in China only in recent years. 

Similarly, Long Yubei, a graduate of Fudan University, joined Shopee after resigning from Bytedance in 2022. “In front of the reality of being laid off by tech giants at the age of 35 and work-life imbalance, the only way out for us is to become a ‘super individual’,” she said, “whose aim is not to become a manager of a big company, but to achieve freedom through freelancing, digital nomads, and small team entrepreneurship.”

Nodes of an Era

Despite the irreversible trend of Gen Z fleeing from mammoth tech firms, the internet giants have imprinted their culture in the youthful mind. They are important nodes of an era, allowing the new generation to carry the “tech giant culture” forward and transform the structure of future Chinese corporations. 

“Bytedance mentors always ask us to speak frankly and clearly in every meeting, and propose ideas concisely, without metaphors,” Yan Changli, an operation management intern recollected, “Although it is straightforward and aggressive, it can improve work efficiency. This kind of “frankness and clarity” has become part of my life and work.”

“In internal meetings, you can directly ask leaders pointed questions such as “how they perceive the ‘35+ problem’, and the leader will reply to each questions. I guess wherever I go, the flat management style is what I would promote.” Li Tianqi said. 

“When I first entered the workplace, the mentors here helped me build a lot of things from scratch,” Yan Changli said, “Even if I won’t work in big techs in the future, I would be grateful for the time and lessons I’ve learned in it.”

Please stay tuned, more stories to come~