Education and Skills

The future of China’s ant tribe

Winston Ma, CFA Esq.
Adjunct Professor, New York University
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Winston Wenyan Ma, Young Global Leader class 2013, discusses the challenges facing China’s ant tribe generation

In China, a special group of educated youth lives on the margins of society. They are the young people who were born and raised in the countryside, who went on to university, but are unable to land their dream job in cities such as Beijing and Shanghai after graduation.

They call themselves the “ant tribe”, partly due to their industrious, hard-working nature, but also in reference to their cramped and meagre living conditions. The ant tribe illustrates a drastic mismatch between China’s educated youth and its economic boom.

This mismatch partly came from China’s existing economic model, which is heavy on trade (import/export) and investment (infrastructure) yet slow to produce white-collar jobs. Manufacturing, mining and construction still represent 47% of China’s economic output (twice their share in the United States). A recent national survey showed that among people in their early twenties, those with a college degree were four times as likely to be unemployed as those with only an elementary education.

As China endeavours to shift towards a more consumption-driven economy, the ant tribe may find a bright future in a “smarter” dream.

First, the government is committed to transforming China’s growth model. With the low-cost “made in China” model challenged by domestic and global cost inflations, the upgrade of industry sectors is critical for China’s sustainable growth. High-skilled jobs from the smarter industries will give ambitious young people an opportunity to fully utilize their higher education.

Secondly, the ant tribe can be a distinctive and constructive force in China’s economic transition. As China deepens its economic reforms, innovation opportunities will be ripe. The Young Global Leaders and Global Shapers communities at the World Economic Forum may also find ways to guide and coach smart young people into creating their own ventures instead of sticking to the more routine office jobs.

Finally, the ant tribe generation will define the Chinese Dream with a new context of personal prosperity. Along with the wider population, they are acutely aware of the environmental challenge and income disparity arising from the economic boom. I hope that their entrepreneurial endeavours will lead to innovations that emphasize sharing over ownership. It will not only be more sustainable for China but also will help to ease social friction, as everyone gets a piece of a smarter pie.

We should help the ant tribe to realize their dream, smartly, because the educated youth is a dividend in the making economically, if we get it right.

Winston Wenyan Ma, Managing Director, China Investment Corp (CIC); Young Global Leader; and a Member of the Global Agenda Council for Long-term Investing

Image: A woman is seen walking into the subway system in Beijing REUTERS/Claro Cortes IV

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