In the early weeks of July 2021, an entire generation of China’s young work force decided to give up the rat race. They quit their high-flying and high-paying jobs by the thousands, left bustling cities and their dreams of making big money and returned home to a life of bare minimum in what they are calling “lie flat”, or tang ping.
It is not an act that stemmed from laziness as much as it is for the act of fighting back. Intense pressure to succeed in career and life has burnt out a whole generation in China and they have had enough. A lack of upward social mobility – through-the-roof housing prices and skyrocketing living costs – also accelerated the movement.
The movement first saw a flicker of life in April when a post on Chinese social platform Baidu went viral. The post titled “Lying Flat is Justice” renounced the unnecessary stresses of work culture, where hustle culture was too much celebrated. The author, two years into joblessness, found a renewed independence in resignation, writing “I can be like Diogenes, who sleeps in his own barrel taking in the sun.”
By May, the young Chinese work force, over-worked and over-stressed began to buy into the merits of his lesson, and it spread like wildfire which caught on in full rage by the middle of the year. Done with overtime work cultures like Jack Ma’s ‘996’ – working from 9am-9pm six days a week – they are now rebelling by lying flat, shunning tireless struggle for more meaningful lives with actual time to themselves and what they count as important.
As China and its youth deal with the remorse and repercussions, here are a few key things we can all pick up from it.
Success means different things to different people
Chasing a dream is important but if it’s someone else’s dream that you’re chasing without aligning with your own values to its purpose, it is not so much chasing dream as it is blindly racing. Success looks very different to different people. The vision of success most commonly fed to us includes that of big houses and exotic cars, earned through a high flying career. If staying home and cultivating a small home business or raising children brings you more joy than working the wheels at a multi-national corporation, then you have reached your place of success, regardless of what everyone else thinks and envisions.
Ambition is not something to be harvested
In its spirit of rebellion, one of the most dominant slogans of ‘flying flat’ included “Don’t buy property; don’t buy a car; don’t get married; don’t have children; and don’t consume.” All these elements of consumerism disguised as the natural progresses of life implies that life is measurable by “stages” marked by materials. In China where consumerism is among the world’s most conspicuous, it is easy to motivate ambition by materialistic gains but as the movement shows, it’s not something so easily harvested. There can be a seed that’s initially planted but push too hard and people push back, preferring to do things their way – or the direct opposite.
Balance should never be tipped
There is always a limit to how much even the seemingly most resilient can endure and the ‘lying flat’ movement makes this clear. The Alibaba’s 996 work culture might be great for innovation and Huawei’s ‘wolf culture’ that asks for employees to devote themselves to their companies and fight like wolves might accelerate growth, but at what cost? Employees are also humans at the end of the day, with respective needs, limits and, most importantly, dignity. If anything, ‘lying flat’ is an entire generation’s pushback to the dehumanizing struggle against excessive hustle culture, one that is passive, desperate and a long time coming.