A growing number of highly educated young people are turning away from office jobs and flocking to physical labor as a means of escaping workplace fatigue and numbness.
However, some of them quickly discover that physical labor cannot entirely eliminate the anxiety brought about by modern workplaces.
Joining the physical labor force
Dressed in a blue uniform, Wang Yanbing became an inconspicuous cashier at the exit of a self-service fresh food supermarket in Beijing. As a cashier in this shopping mall, she doesn’t need to scan barcodes or punch prices on the keyboard most of the time.
The supermarket is equipped with self-checkout machines, and cashiers only need to stand near the machines, supervise customers’ self-checkout, and provide assistance to those in need.
This is the new job Wang Yanbing found after quitting her job at a tech company in 2022.
Earlier, Wang Yanbing had to report to an office in the Haidian district of Beijing on time every day. She would take the elevator to the high-rise office and then sit at a desk all day with her legs curled up and her hands typing on the keyboard.
The job didn’t require too much physical labor and was mostly mentally exhausting. She worried about not meeting her KPI, feared being scolded by her boss for making mistakes in her work, and had conflicts with her colleagues. She buried her head in various forms and reports, wondering what the pale documents meant.
When her mental exhaustion became unbearable, she decided to escape and hide in a light physical job. So she became a cashier. She works two shifts a day, wiping tables regularly, hanging plastic bags, and changing printer paper. On supermarket member days, she becomes busier as the customer flow increases. She stands at the checkout area from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. with only a two-hour break for meals.
This job requires physical labor, but the benefit is that she doesn’t have to deal with too many people. The work is simple and clear, and every transaction has an accurate number.
Physical labor helps her clear her mind and brings her joy. At the end of each day, she feels a sense of accomplishment. In fact, she even sleeps better now and her skin looks brighter.
More and more young white-collar workers are leaving their cubicles and flocking to manual labor jobs, hoping to experience a sense of reality by physically exerting themselves.
The young woman, named Funny, graduated from a top 211 university in China. After quitting her job as a clerk in an office building in Wuxi, she started taking on various manual labor jobs. In March 2023, she began working part-time at a car wash, earning an average of 480 yuan per day, which is higher than her previous office job.
Lost in manual labor, she doesn’t have to think too much, just focusing on cleaning the cars. By the end of the day, her back and waist are sore, but she believes she can bounce back after a good night’s rest. She thinks this physical exhaustion is better than the exhaustion from office work, which builds up inside and cannot be dissipated.
In November 2022, a group called the “Light Physical Labor Exploration Alliance” appeared on Douban, and in just a few months, more than 30,000 members had joined. Reading through the posts, you’ll find that members include graduates from top universities such as the 985 and 211, who have left their jobs in big companies, advertising firms, and financial institutions to take on manual labor jobs such as package sorting, cleaning, restaurant service, reception, and customer service, all with the hope of rebuilding their life order.
In Fujian, a young person who goes by the nickname “French Fry” quit a high-pressure job at an advertising company and started working at a community coffee shop. Her main duties involve basic food preparation and beverage service, such as toasting bread and pouring milk into coffee, and the pace of work has suddenly slowed down. There is a large banyan tree outside the coffee shop, and during lunch breaks, she and her colleagues eat tuna salad and sandwiches at a wooden table under the tree’s shade and can take a nap after lunch.
With a clear boundary between work and rest, she no longer receives overwhelming messages from her boss in the work chat group, and the planning cases that used to occupy her entire mind have completely dissipated. This seems to be the life many office workers dream of. However, it should be noted that her plan is to study abroad in the near future, and working at the coffee shop is just a temporary pastime.
Many young people who experience physical labor have not adequately prepared themselves to endure the hardship. Most physical labor jobs require practitioners to have qualified physical fitness and test their endurance for repetitive and monotonous tasks.
In January 2023, an undergraduate student from Sichuan who had not yet graduated shared his experience working as a sorting staff at a courier station for a day. He woke up at five in the morning, arrived at work at seven, and worked for 12 hours until seven in the evening. During that time, he stood and flipped over each parcel, making sure that the side with the address label was facing up. Facing the mountains of packages, he repeated the same action all day. It was not too difficult for him to handle lightweight packages, but he struggled to lift parcels weighing over 30 kilograms.
After a day of work, he became exhausted and said his back was about to break. The protective gloves he wore were also severely worn out, and his fingers were too tired to straighten. When he received his salary of 149.5 yuan, his hands were shaking uncontrollably. Before starting the job, he had thought of it as a long-term part-time gig, but he did not expect to be physically overwhelmed on the first day.
After his defeat, he fled back to the ivory tower he had struggled to enter for more than a decade. In the end, his conclusion was that physical labor is doable, but one should stay away from courier stations, where true physical labor is prevalent.
In the discussion of embracing physical labor, many speakers have portrayed taking on manual work during career or education gaps as a fearless choice, claiming that such an experience brings people closer to life. However, this perspective can be deceptive, as it ignores the high physical demands that come with this type of work.
At the beginning of 2023, Connie left a real estate company and took a job as a clothing store sales associate, reducing her monthly salary by over 10,000 yuan. Her daily work consists of repeating several motions. Every day, Connie folds hundreds of pants, running over 10,000 steps in a space of just over 200 square meters. Now, she must use a standard script to assist customers in selecting merchandise, repeating the same phrases hundreds of times.
Physical labor cannot cure Connie’s spiritual exhaustion. In this job, all of her actions are rigid and mechanical, just like how she had to write four different versions of her weekly report for the joint venture company, her own company, the project team, and personal summary in her previous job. Both experiences share a sense of meaningless repetition.
Essentially, this is a kind of “kirky” – a strange and irrational social phenomenon
The trend of mass-experiencing physical labor is evolving into a new form of social “kirky.” It has unintentionally become a trend, and many people’s expressions and actions demonstrate signs of following the trend.
In February 2023, a video titled “I saved 5,000 yuan in 5 years after graduation, while she became a master’s degree holder and a hotpot restaurant cleaner” went viral. One of the girls in the video is a graduate student from the Communication University of China. After graduation, her dream was to become a screenwriter, but this path was particularly difficult. In order to support herself, she worked as a cleaner at a hotpot restaurant.
The labels of “master’s degree holder” and “hotpot restaurant cleaner” that were attached to the same person drew significant attention due to their stark contrast.
A media worker recently shared on his social media account that the biggest challenge of his job was dealing with interviewees, colleagues, and editors. As there are no clear working hours in the media industry, he often found himself crying while writing articles just to meet deadlines.
Feeling overwhelmed, he decided to quit his job and pursue different experiences. After hearing about many people finding solace in pottery making in Jingdezhen, Jiangxi, he bought a ticket and headed there in February this year.
In Jingdezhen, he tried his hand at pottery making. The process of throwing and trimming pottery was delicate and required him to maintain one position for an entire day. Even more challenging was applying glaze, which involved handling metallic compounds that could be harmful to his health. After a few days, he developed frostbite on his hands and experienced soreness all over his body.
“The work hours were longer than my office hours, and I found myself wishing to go back to a regular job. Working in a factory is much easier than playing with mud,” he said.
Li Liang, a former office worker, entered the factory industry with idealistic aspirations, but soon discovered the harsh and unfriendly aspects of physical labor.
To become a production line worker, some people hide their educational background. Li Liang resigned from his office job and became a piece-rate worker in a factory. Many of his colleagues had only graduated from middle school and had been working in this field for a long time, which made them much faster than him. Due to his low work efficiency, Li Liang was often bullied and isolated by his colleagues, and his income was low. He only earned 3,000 yuan per month based on his abilities.
Unable to tolerate the bullying from his colleagues, Li Liang quit his piece-rate job and went to work at a convenience store. However, the store manager criticized Li Liang for his slow speed in stocking.
In the physical labor industry, Li Liang’s self-esteem was repeatedly hit, so he decided to quit and return to the office. Obviously, the office was his territory. After returning to the office for a period of time, he effortlessly earned a bonus.
Young people in the office who do physical work feel happy and free because they have a way back to the office once they can’t handle it. Once they decide to become a complete physical laborer, everything becomes suspicious.
As a media person discussed the topic of physical labor on an audio program, “Young people think they would be happy to have the opportunity to move things and see it as a way to exercise. But what if it’s just for their livelihood?”
Real physical labor has always been brutal. It’s not like the short video bloggers who enjoy a pastoral life by growing flowers and picking vegetables in the fields or the celebrities chasing and playing on the ridge in variety shows for entertainment.
To support their families, physical laborers endure wind and sun, and their hands are blistered from hard work, squeezing every drop of sweat out of their bodies.
While some people pursue the glamorous facade of physical labor, there are still young people who truly focus on the work. Their stories have been featured in newspapers and on the internet.
A video of a Tsinghua doctoral student named Mo Mingyong delivering food as a deliveryman became a popular news story. In the video, he wore a delivery uniform and spoke fluent English while encouraging himself. Prior to becoming a deliveryman, he was an English teacher at an education and training institution. Due to education and training reforms in 2021, his start-up failed and he accumulated a million yuan in debt. At one point, no one signed up for his English classes, which had dropped to 50 yuan per session. In order to earn money to repay his debts, he registered as a delivery rider and also worked other part-time jobs. With the help of these physical jobs, he is trying to get through the most difficult period of his life.
In 2022, news reported on a student from a prestigious university in the 985 Project who graduated and worked as a deliveryman for a full three years, saving over 400,000 yuan. He used the money to buy a car and even claimed to have paid the down payment for a house.
Time is a touchstone for testing sincerity. Sticking to a position for a long time and solving one’s own real problems is praiseworthy.
Twenty years ago, after graduating from Peking University, Lu Buxuan chose to sell pork, which was ridiculed for many years. However, he has been selling pork for twenty years and has become a billionaire.
These young people who devote themselves to physical labor are worthy of respect and admiration. They have demonstrated resilience, perseverance, and the ability to overcome difficulties.
Where is the Way Out?
Last spring, Zhang Fei, who had resigned from a large factory in Shenzhen, came to Beijing to work in order to end her long-distance relationship with her boyfriend. During the gap before her new job, she decided to make coffee at Starbucks. The high-intensity physical labor almost crushed her. She had to stand for eight hours straight every day, with a maximum of ten minutes of rest per hour, and had to apply for permission to use the restroom. Her phone was also off-limits.
After experiencing physical labor, Zhang Fei discovered something. The reason why those who work in physical labor often expect their children to avoid this fate through academic advancement is that simple and repetitive physical labor not only wears down the body but, most importantly, many real physical laborers have no social mobility. In coffee shops, basic-level staff can only become store managers at most and cannot move to the administrative level.
If one becomes a real physical laborer, self-growth is almost non-existent. In a large factory, she could proactively absorb a lot of industry information, which was beneficial to her career development. Now she has no such opportunity, and she often immerses herself in the role of a “Starbucks employee,” worrying that she will wash dishes here for a lifetime. Huge anxiety and sense of meaninglessness have consumed her.
After seeing through this layer, Zhang Fei acknowledged that she could not become a real physical laborer. On her 14th day of work, Zhang Fei resigned and began looking for a job in a large factory again. Because she was afraid that this physical labor job would “dirty her resume,” she always deliberately concealed this experience during job interviews.
Whether it is mental or physical labor, upward or downward career choices are the freedom of young people who have received higher education.
Although highly educated young people flock to do physical labor, this does not solve the mental exhaustion problem, but it does reveal some issues.
A few years ago, young people boasted about “lying flat,” and today they claim to want to do physical labor. They would rather go from lying flat at 180 degrees to standing at 90 degrees than sit in a cubicle in the office and type on a keyboard. Essentially, it is a farewell to the internal competition of high-intensity mental work in the workplace.
Young people are eager to get rid of the sense of scarcity and abrasion brought about by mental labor, which is becoming a group emotion.
Western Marxist philosopher Sohn-Rethel published a book called “Intellectual and Manual Labour: A Critique of Epistemology” in the 1950s, in which he proposed a new understanding in his research: “Because in the process of social history, mental labor gradually separates from manual labor, and the separation of brain and fingertip is closely related to social class separation.”
In the past, mental labor was seen as creative labor. Engaging in mental labor not only brings higher income but also produces more value to nourish practitioners. However, when young people flock to avoid mental labor, the above conclusion is worth reconsidering.