China’s ‘Curse of 35’ and the middle-age trap

Discrimination against older workers casts a shadow over their financial future and the Chinese economy

In China, the employment landscape poses a formidable obstacle for people who are in their thirties. Not only do they face the specter of age discrimination, but they are also confronted with the notorious “Curse of 35.” 

This widely prevalent belief perpetuates the notion that employers are less inclined to hire workers older than 35, favoring younger individuals who are perceived as “less expensive.” 

The unfortunate result is a double-edged sword that severely impacts career prospects, leaving those in their mid-30s with a mortgage to pay or a desire to start a family in a state of despair.

China’s economic recovery after the pandemic has encountered a significant obstacle, leading to widespread discussions about the “Curse of 35” on online platforms. 

The origins of this phenomenon remain unclear, and it is difficult to determine its veracity.  

The “Curse of 35” adds insult to injury, compounding the challenges faced by those in their mid-30s. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy fueled by biases and stereotypes, which makes it increasingly difficult for individuals to secure employment. 

This discriminatory belief undermines the prospects of individuals who, at a critical stage in their lives, have financial responsibilities, such as mortgages, to fulfill. 

Dampens confidence

Additionally, it stifles their aspirations of starting a family, as the uncertainty of finding stable employment dampens their confidence and ability to plan for the future.

No doubt, age discrimination is a global problem. 

Yet in China, where respect for seniority is traditionally valued, it is disheartening to witness such discrimination against experienced and capable workers. 

By clinging to the notion that younger individuals are more “cost-effective,” employers perpetuate a stereotype devaluing the skills and knowledge acquired through years of dedication and hard work. 

On top of that, the weakness of the job market and the prevalence of age discrimination, which is not legally prohibited in China, cannot be denied. 

This unfortunate combination of factors poses a double blow to individuals in their mid-30s who are grappling with important life decisions. 

Alibaba has hired fewer employees. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

According to a Chinese news portal, an official from the National Health Commission responsible for demographic policies stated that increased competition in the job market is one of the factors leading to the postponement of marriages among young Chinese. 

But there are reservations about relying on employment data provided by the Chinese government, as their criteria consider anyone who has worked a mere one hour per week.

Despite this low threshold, the urban unemployment rate has remained above 5% this year, which appears more favorable compared to the situation in 2019. But on the other hand, a different narrative emerges from the numbers reported by corporate entities.

In the first quarter of this year, prominent internet companies such as Alibaba, Tencent, and Baidu, known for being some of the best-paying employers in the country, hired approximately 9% fewer employees compared to their peak during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

These figures are based on financial reports released by the companies. 

Additionally, several major real estate developers in China experienced substantial reductions in their workforce, ranging from 30% to 70% in 2022. 

Employment landscape

These statistics provide a contrasting perspective on the employment landscape compared to the government’s reported data.

This unfortunate phenomenon of the “Curse of 35,” combined with the broader economic challenges faced by China, has drawn attention to the potential correlation with the Kuznets trap or inverted U. 

The theory suggests that countries undergoing rapid economic development may experience a stagnation or regression phase, where income inequality and societal issues hinder further progress. 

In the case of the Chinese economy, this curse exacerbates that trap, creating additional barriers to economic growth and social well-being.

The Kuznets trap is named after economist Simon Kuznets and warns that during rapid economic development, income inequality tends to worsen before it improves. 

As China continues to transform into a major global economy, it faces the challenge of managing income disparities and ensuring equitable distribution of wealth. 

The concentration of wealth in specific sectors and regions exacerbates income inequality, limiting opportunities for social mobility. 

Two measures of income inequality in China
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The “Curse of 35” further compounds this trap by impeding the progress of mid-career professionals who could otherwise contribute to reducing these disparities through their expertise and experience.

So, the “Curse of 35,” combined with the Kuznets trap, has significant implications for China’s economic growth and social stability. Age discrimination limits access to a diverse talent pool and prevents the full utilization of skilled individuals in the workforce. 

This hinders innovation, productivity, and overall economic performance. 

Furthermore, the exclusion of mid-career professionals from meaningful employment opportunities can lead to dissatisfaction, reduced consumer spending and erode social cohesion. 

These factors can hamper long-term sustainable growth and impede the resolution of income inequality issues.

In conclusion, the haunting specter of the “Curse of 35” casts a shadow over middle-aged individuals in China, leaving them grappling with the daunting challenge of an uncertain future. 

Collective effort

Escaping this age discrimination phenomenon is no easy task, as it continues to pose significant barriers to their career progression and overall well-being. 

Addressing the “Curse of 35” requires a collective effort from society, employers, and the government to dismantle age-based biases.

Instead, there must be a policy to promote inclusivity, as well as create an environment where the talents and potential of individuals in their mid-30s can thrive. 

By doing so, we can offer hope for middle-aged Chinese citizens, enabling them to confidently face the future with renewed optimism.

IndraStra Global is a “Strategic Information Services Company,” primarily focused on data-driven academic research.

This article was originally published by Indrastra under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Read the original here.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of China Factor.