Li Nian is among many Chinese students taking unconventional graduation photos, which often show them slumped or on the ground.
Hong Kong CNN  — 

One photo shows the young woman sprawled facedown on the ground in a graduation gown, her tasseled cap discarded to the side. Others show her slumped over a chair, collapsed against a wall, and hanging listlessly over a staircase banister.

But the woman in these images hasn’t been harmed – at least, not physically. These are graduation photos, and their theme is “being more dead than alive,” according to the accompanying caption.

In recent weeks, Chinese social media has become awash with tongue-in-cheek images like these, posted by fresh graduates who have chosen to eschew the typical polished portraits in favor of shots they say offer a truer reflection of the tough reality they face.

A record 11.6 million college students are expected to enter the job market this summer, but their prospects look bleak. Urban youth unemployment is at record levels, reaching 20.8% in May, and an influx of new job seekers will only increase the competition.

Students at Wuhan University, China, during a graduation ceremony on June 20, 2023.

At the same time, the job market they will be competing in is under stress – posing a risk to the government, which has so far been unable to reverse a trend partially of its own making. The slowing economy has been battered by the government’s now-abandoned strict zero-Covid policy and a regulatory crackdown across the private sector, which accounts for 80% of jobs nationwide.

Among the industries hardest hit are tech and education, two sectors that would normally attract large graduate intakes.

All this makes for a depressing picture for students, many of whom already feel exhausted and discouraged after navigating China’s notoriously competitive education system to reach this point – with little to show for it.

“This master’s degree…is finally…finished,” one student wrote on the Chinese app Xiaohongshu, next to a photo of herself on the ground, barely clinging to her graduation cap and thesis packet. In another picture, she pretends to throw her thesis into a recycling bin.

In the comments, some younger students anxiously debate whether it’s worth applying for graduate school, while older peers commiserate. One remarked: “Great post, it perfectly reflects the mental state of graduate students.”

Resumes in the trash

China’s youth are now the most educated in decades, with record numbers graduating from colleges and vocational schools.

But this has led to a mismatch between their skills and expectations, and the available opportunities. And with a record number of graduates entering the jobs market, some are concerned their degrees are becoming less valuable to employers.

This has pushed many to pursue postgraduate degrees in the hope of gaining an edge: more than 6.5 million master’s degrees have been granted in the past decade, and more than 600,000 doctorate degrees, according to China’s Ministry of Education.

The pandemic made job hunting even harder – prompting the government to order universities to admit more master’s applicants in 2020, state media reported.

But even a master’s or PhD is no guarantee of a job.

Li Nian, a PhD student who graduated this past week, is among those to have posted “more dead than alive” style photos.

Li had originally planned to enter the workforce straight after graduating; she had entered her PhD program right after her undergraduate degree, and all those years of school were quite enough.

But despite submitting “countless resumes,” none of the recruiters or employers replied, she said.

She recalled going to a job fair at her school, and seeing recruiters throw “a thick pile of resumes into the trash when they wrapped up. Because they are not short of people.”

Now, she plans to go overseas for a post-doctoral program, hoping the international experience might boost her chances of finding a position back home.

Dark humor

Despite the graduates’ limited prospects, their “more dead than alive” photos highlight the dark humor found in the face of challenging odds.

After being inspired by examples online, Li took her own graduation photos, which are funny despite the tiredness depicted. “I thought I would remember such graduation photos for the rest of my life,” she told CNN.

In one, she droops over the back of a park bench in her graduation robes. Another shows her on the ground, folded in half like a puppet with its strings cut.

Li Nian graduated from her PhD program in Nanjing, China, in June 2023.

“I didn’t think about anything else but being happy,” she said, emphasizing that the point was to celebrate graduating after completing her arduous PhD program.

Another take on the trend shows grinning students Photoshopped in front of burning buildings, sometimes flashing an enthusiastic thumbs up.

Similarly, some graduates say the trend is just a fun twist on a longstanding student tradition – one user argued that “stereotypical” graduation photos with books and bouquets were “a lot less interesting.”

Still, as Li acknowledged, there is a reason so many people seem to resonate with the trend.

“I saw a comment saying they could empathize with (my photo),” she said. “Maybe everyone studying for a PhD is very depressed. There was a popular saying not long ago that anyone studying for a PhD is crazy.”

Compounding crises

China is not alone in suffering a high youth unemployment rate. As Goldman Sachs analysts pointed out in a recent report, European countries such as Spain and Italy have also been grappling with rates surpassing 20%.

But China’s unique demographics make the stakes particularly high, according to the analysts, who highlight “how important the youth population is to China’s economy.”

Young people are big spenders in rent, transportation, communication and culture, they point out, and an increasingly unemployed, moneyless youth could mean less consumer spending – and a weaker national economy.

The unemployment rate also threatens to compound several other overlapping problems.

With China’s population of around 1.4 billion aging rapidly and beginning to shrink, the economy badly needs more young workers so it can support the health and social needs of the fast-expanding elderly group. But many young people are delaying or deciding not to start families due to their mounting economic struggles – further compounding the problem.

Joblessness is only part of the reason for the growing disillusionment and loss of trust in authorities many young people feel.

Stagnating wages, limited upward mobility, unaffordable housing and rising costs of living have added to their frustrations. The government’s Covid lockdowns and draconian measures further sowed resentment – even igniting nationwide protests in a rare and remarkable show of dissent last year.

As this disenchanted generation grows up, some have even vowed to be the “the last generation” in an act of protest – to the horror of the ruling Chinese Communist Party.

One recent post on China’s Twitter-like platform Weibo summed up the darkening mood. “Why is everyone reluctant to have children? The reason is very simple,” they wrote. “You spend more than 20 years of energy, sweat, and a million yuan to raise a college student who can’t even find a job after graduation – or if they do, it’s with a monthly salary of 3,000 yuan ($418). Every day you start work early, finish late, and take out loans to buy your child a house and car.”

At the end of the day, the poster concluded, not having children – who would in turn have to suffer the same way – might be the “kind thing to do.”

Chinese authorities, alarmed by the wave of pessimism, have tried to turn things around by offering financial incentives for childbirth, housing subsidies for young couples, and other initiatives with little effect.

But their attempts to create more positions for young people could have “relatively limited” use, warned the Goldman Sachs report.

Things are expected to get worse in the coming months, the report said. The flood of new graduates into the workforce means the unemployment rate could rise several percentage points by late summer before starting to decline at the end of the quarter.

While the skills mismatch issue might gradually ease with the right policies, it warned this was a “difficult” task that was “unlikely to yield significant improvement in the short run.”

Instead, China will likely see high youth unemployment continue “in the next few years,” it said.

And that spells trouble for millions of students across the country, who are preparing with growing dread to enter a workforce without enough space for them.

Candice Zhu contributed to this story