Female workers in a cellphone factory Dongguan factory

Why China’s Gen Z Migrant Workers Are Leaving the Assembly Line

More educated, autonomous, and aware of their rights than the previous generation, China’s newest migrant workers are ditching factory work for the digital economy

This is the second part of our series on the future of migrant work in China. Read Part 1 here.

Xiao Ying, from rural Jiangxi province in southern China, is only 23 years old and already belongs to a dying breed. “A girl born in the 2000s working in a garment factory, do other people my age find this embarrassing?” she asks in the title of one of her vlogs on the Chinese video platform Bilibili.

The question might seem absurd to the millions of migrant workers who have filled China’s factory assembly lines since the 1980s, leaving their hometowns in search of work and opportunity in urban areas and manufacturing hubs. But Xiao Ying’s generation, known in China as linglinghou (零零后) or “the post-00s”—more educated, independent, and ambitious than their parents—are different, and fewer and fewer of them are drawn to factory work now.

The regimented work of the assembly line is partly to blame. As Xiao Ying, who dropped out of middle school at 14, explains in her videos, every day at the factory is the same. She gets up shortly before 8 a.m. in her dorm room in central Jiangxi’s Ganzhou city. The sides of her bed frame are covered with thick blankets to create the tiniest of private spaces and shield her from the view of her coworkers who occupy other beds like this in the same room. It only takes Xiao Ying a few minutes to get to work across the street in the garment factory where she will sit at her workstation and repeat the same motion hundreds of times over the course of the next 12 hours.

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author Roman Kierst (小罗)

Roman Kierst is a staff writer and editor at The World of Chinese based in Beijing but much more at home in Chengdu, where his own China story first began as a high school exchange student in 2006. Likes to pick up a film camera occasionally to take pictures of (mostly) old places.

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