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Exploring New Opportunities: Hostels Provide a Home for China’s Unemployed Youth

In a youth hostel in downtown Shanghai, amid the dull roar of a hair dryer, the shriek of a blender and the lingering aroma of spicy instant noodles, Ethan Yi, 23, was pondering the state of the world.

“Why can’t I, a college graduate, find a job?” Mr. Yi lamented as he sat in the hostel’s common room after a day of unsuccessful interviews. “Why is it only jobs that pay just $400 or $500 a month that want me? Sometimes I wonder, how can it be this hard?”

That is the question being asked in hostels across China. As joblessness among young Chinese has reached record highs, hostels have become refuges for young people trying their fortunes in major cities, who need a place to crash between back-to-back interviews, to strategize on their next networking meeting or to fire off yet another résumé. They have become concentrated hubs for people’s anxiety, hopes, despair and ambitions, all packed into bunk beds that go for a few dollars a night.

At the Together Hostel, where Mr. Yi was staying, new arrivals scrolled through online job listings surrounded by wall maps highlighting the best spots for Shanghai soup dumplings. Posters advertising local comedy shows went largely ignored by fresh graduates calling their parents for advice or comfort.

Asked what he had been doing at the hostel, Mr. Yi, who was sitting idly by the smoothie bar, responded: “Thinking about life.”

Many of the guests arrive with high hopes. Mr. Yi, visiting Shanghai for the first time from his home in the central province of Hunan, was delighted to see many foreigners in the city, as he wanted to work in international trade or translation. He arrived on a Saturday and with several interviews lined up for the week, he spent the weekend sightseeing. At night, he returned to the tidy room and private bathroom he shared with three others for about $13 per night.

But by the following Monday evening, he had deflated. An interview that morning, at a start-up, had ended within a few minutes. Several hours later, he received a rejection notice from another company that he had interviewed with online before arriving. He wanted a salary of at least $950 a month, slightly higher than the average in Shanghai, but the likelihood seemed slim.

“Right now I feel pretty lost,” Mr. Yi said, as guests with towels wrapped around wet hair padded through the lobby. “My dad just told me, it’s OK, keep looking. But honestly, you still have to think about the money problem — I don’t want to waste too much. So my time is limited.”

The hostels are necessary partly because of the hypercompetitive nature of China’s white-collar job market. The most desirable opportunities are still concentrated in a few megacities like Shanghai or Shenzhen, even as the number of universities and university graduates around the country has ballooned. The surfeit of graduates means that candidates unwilling to travel for interviews — and pay their own way — may be easily dismissed.

As the Chinese economy slows, competition has grown even stiffer. Unemployment among 16- to 24-year-olds in urban areas rose to a record high of 21.3 percent in June, before the government stopped publishing the data. Even some young people who have landed jobs are paid so little that they cannot afford a deposit on a long-term lease, or are afraid to sign one for fear of suddenly being laid off. That was the case with Mr. Yi’s upper bunkmate.

The competition was also weighing heavily upon Zhi Yanran, who had traveled to the hostel the day before from her home in Jiangxi Province. Ms. Zhi had done three interviews that day, and had two more the next, for positions in human resources; she had also continued to submit new applications in between.

Still, Ms. Zhi said she felt she was lagging behind her graduate school classmates, who had started applying for jobs long ago. She had begun only in September, after “lying flat” — Chinese slang for slacking off — for “a long time,” she said.

How long exactly? About two months, since graduating in June. But that was a long time, Ms. Zhi insisted. “It’s so hard to find a job now!”

Ms. Zhi was satisfied with her five-person room in the hostel, for which she was paying less than $11 a night, but had one minor complaint: The hostel was not nearly as lively as she had expected. Ms. Zhi had hoped to make friends, but seemingly all the other guests who were not in their rooms were sitting silently hunched over their phones or computers in individual workstations.

“It’s like a college dorm mixed with a library,” Ms. Zhi said, finishing a quiet takeout dinner in a dimly lit cubicle of her own.

Though recent graduates have among the highest rates of joblessness, others have struggled too. In the lobby around 9 p.m., while food delivery drivers flitted in and out calling out orders, Kris Zhang, 30, lay on a couch trying to nap.

Mr. Zhang had worked in the city of Hangzhou as a well-paid computer programmer at Alibaba, the e-commerce giant, until he was laid off earlier this year. He wanted to stay in Hangzhou, where he had already bought a house and an Audi, but couldn’t find a new job there that would pay well enough to cover his more than $27,000 annually in mortgage and car loans.

So the week before, he had reluctantly accepted an offer in Shanghai, while continuing to look for positions in Hangzhou. He was living in the hostel in the hope that his stay in Shanghai would be brief. He showed the sparse contents of a silver hard-shell suitcase — a few tangled shirts and shorts, taking up barely a quarter of the space — as if manifesting that short timeline into existence.

Still, Mr. Zhang acknowledged the reality might be more difficult. “Before, you could search with your eyes closed and get dozens of offers a year,” he said. “The situation now is much worse.”

Around 10 p.m., Yang Han flopped onto a couch in the common room, sweaty from a game of pickup basketball. Mr. Yang, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in advertising in June, had traveled from his home in central China’s Henan Province for two interviews. Shanghai was the hub of China’s advertising industry, he said, and he was determined to find a job there.

He had been anxious when he arrived several days earlier. But the interviews were done, and he could do nothing more but wait. (Sort of: He had been thinking about sending a follow-up letter to one recruiter to lay out his case again.)

Mr. Yang settled into his seat and unwrapped a convenience store sandwich and a separate chicken breast — both cheap and nutritious, he noted. Worst case, he said, he would be rejected, take the train back to Henan, submit more résumés, and wait until a next round of interviews in Shanghai. And repeat until he found a job.

Of course, he added, “I hope I don’t need to make that many trips.”

Li You contributed research.

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