Growing up in a Chinese village, Julian Zhu saw his father only a few times a year when he returned for holidays from his exhausting job in a textile mill in southern Guangdong province.
For his father's generation, factory work was a lifeline out of rural poverty. For Zhu, and millions of other younger Chinese, the low pay, long hours of drudgery and the risk of injuries are no longer sacrifices worth making.
'After a while, that work makes your mind numb,' said the 32-year-old, who quit the production lines some years ago and now makes a living selling milk formula and doing scooter deliveries for a supermarket in Shenzhen, China's southern tech hub. 'I couldn't stand the repetition.'
The rejection of grinding factory work by Zhu and other Chinese in their 20s and 30s is contributing to a deepening labor shortage that is frustrating manufacturers in China, which produces a third of the goods consumed globally.
Factory bosses say they would produce more, and faster, with younger blood replacing their aging workforce. But offering the higher wages and better working conditions that younger Chinese want would risk eroding their competitive advantage.
And smaller manufacturers say large investments in automation technology are either unaffordable or imprudent when rising inflation and borrowing costs are curbing demand in China's key export markets.
More than 80% of Chinese manufacturers faced labor shortages ranging from hundreds to thousands of workers this year, equivalent to 10% to 30% of their workforce, a survey by CIIC Consulting showed. China's Ministry of Education forecasts a shortage of nearly 30 million manufacturing workers by 2025, larger than Australia's population.
On paper, labor is in no short supply: roughly 18% of Chinese ages 16-24 are unemployed. This year alone, a cohort of 10.8 million graduates entered a job market that, besides manufacturing, is very subdued. China's economy, pummeled by COVID-19 restrictions, a property market downturn and regulatory crackdowns on tech and other private industries, faces its slowest growth in decades.
Klaus Zenkel, who chairs the European Chamber of Commerce in South China, moved to the region about two decades ago, when university graduates were less than one-tenth this year's numbers and the economy as a whole was about 15 times smaller in current U.S. dollar terms. He runs a factory in Shenzhen with around 50 workers who make magnetically shielded rooms used by hospitals for MRI screenings and other procedures.
Zenkel said China's breakneck economic growth in recent years had lifted the aspirations of younger generations, who now see his line of work as increasingly unattractive.
'If you are young, it's much easier to do this job, climbing up the ladder, doing some machinery work, handle tools, and so on, but most of our installers are aged 50 to 60,' he said. 'Sooner or later, we need to get more young people, but it's very difficult. Applicants will have a quick look and say 'no, thank you, that's not for me.''
The National Development and Reform Commission, China's macroeconomic management agency, and the education and human resources ministries did not reply to requests for comment.
Manufacturers say they have three main options to tackle the labor-market mismatch: sacrifice profit margins to increase wages; invest more in automation; or move to cheaper pastures such as Vietnam or India.
But all those choices are difficult to implement.
Liu, who runs a factory in the electric battery supply chain, has invested in more-advanced production equipment with better digital measurements. He said his older workers struggle to keep up with the faster gear or read the data on the screens.
Liu, who like other factory chiefs declined to give his full name so he could speak freely about China's economic slowdown, said he tried luring younger workers with 5% higher wages but was given a cold shoulder.
Liu described his workers' performance this way.
'It's like with Charlie Chaplin,' he said, alluding to a scene in the 1936 movie 'Modern Times,' about the anxieties of U.S. industrial workers during the Great Depression. The main character, Little Tramp, played by Chaplin, fails to keep up with tightening bolts on a conveyer belt.
Chinese policymakers have emphasized automation and industrial upgrading as a solution to an aging workforce.
The country of 1.4 billion people, on the brink of a demographic downturn, accounted for half of the robot installations in 2021, up 44% year-on-year, the International Federation of Robotics said.
But automation has its limits.
Dotty, a general manager at a stainless-steel treatment factory in the city of Foshan, has automated product packaging and work surface cleaning, but says a similar fix for other functions would be too costly. And young workers are vital to keep production moving.
'Our products are really heavy, and we need people to transfer them from one processing procedure to the next. It's labor intensive in hot temperatures and we have difficulty hiring for these procedures,' she said.
Brett, a manager at a factory making video game controllers and keyboards in Dongguan, said orders have halved in recent months, and that many of his peers were moving to Vietnam and Thailand.
He is 'just thinking about how to survive this moment,' he said, adding he expected to lay off 15% of his 200 workers even as he still wanted younger muscles on his assembly lines.
The competitiveness of China's export-oriented manufacturing sector has been built over several decades on state-subsidized investment in production capacity and low labor costs.
The preservation of that status quo is now clashing with the aspirations of a generation of better-educated Chinese for a more comfortable life than the sleep-work-sleep daily grind for tomorrow's meal their parents endured.
Rather than settling for jobs below their education level, a record 4.6 million Chinese applied for postgraduate studies this year. There are 6,000 applications for each civil service job, state media reported this month.
Many young Chinese are also increasingly adopting a minimal lifestyle known as 'lying flat,' doing just enough to get by and rejecting the rat race of China Inc.
Economists say market forces may compel both young Chinese and manufacturers to curb their aspirations.
'The unemployment situation for young people may have to be much worse before the mismatch could be corrected,' said Zhiwu Chen, professor of finance at the University of Hong Kong.
By 2025, he said, there may not be much of a worker shortfall 'as the demand will for sure go down.'
'You feel free'
Zhu's first job was to screw fake diamonds into wristwatches. After that he worked in another factory, molding tin boxes for mooncakes, a traditional Chinese bakery product.
His colleagues shared gruesome stories about workplace injuries involving sharp metal sheets.
Realizing he could avoid reliving his father's life, he quit.
Now doing sales and deliveries, he earns at least 10,000 yuan ($1,421.04) a month, depending on how many hours he puts in. That's almost double what he would earn in a factory, though some of the difference pays for accommodation, as many factories have their own dorms.
'It's hard work. It's dangerous on the busy roads, in the wind and rain, but for younger people, it's much better than factories,' Zhu said. 'You feel free.'
Xiaojing, 27, now earns 5,000 to 6,000 yuan a month as a masseuse in an upscale area of Shenzhen after a three-year stint at a printer factory where she made 4,000 yuan a month.
'All my friends who are my age left the factory,' she said, adding that it would be a tall order to get her to return.
'If they paid 8,000 before overtime, sure.'