HONG KONG — Six months ago, Jia Zhang was still running his own small business in the eastern Chinese province of Zhejiang. But she was hit hard by the pandemic, generating little profit compared to her efforts.

“After careful consideration, I am leaving,” said Zhang, a mother of two who was struggling to balance work with caring for her parents and children.

Now she has a new job: working for her parents full time, simply being their daughter. In return, she is paid 8,000 yuan ($1,115) a month, which is about the average salary in China.

“My job is to spend time with my parents, for example, take them to grocery stores, and do some housework,” Zhang said. “Also, if my parents want to go out, I would make plans ahead of time and take them to various stores.”

In recent months, the hashtags #FullTimeDaughter and #FullTimeSon have been trending on Chinese social media platforms, attracting millions of views. They refer to children of legal age who, due to unemployment, are hired by their parents mainly to carry out household chores and to be available when necessary.

Youth unemployment has become a serious challenge for China, the world’s second-largest economy, especially after three years of «zero-Covid» restrictions that weighed heavily on growth. The unemployment rate among people aged 16 to 24 was a record 21.3% in June, the National Statistics Office reported on Monday.

Similar figures have been reported in countries like Italy and Sweden, while in Spain and Greece they are even higher. In the US, the youth unemployment rate was 7.5% in June, according to the Federal Reserve.

Zhang said her job is to do housework and spend time with her parents.Courtesy of Jia Zhang

Many full-time children, including Zhang, have posted their experiences online. More than 4,000 have gathered on Douban, an IMDb-like site that allows people to form communities similar to Facebook groups, to talk about being kids full-time.

“I like to cook and I cook lunch and dinner Monday through Friday for my family,” wrote a 37-year-old full-time daughter in her group. “My parents give me money without interfering in my life. I am extremely happy every day.”

Some full-time kids inadvertently fall for it when they get stuck while trying to find a job or earn advanced degrees. Cici Gong, 24, jokingly calls herself a «full-time daughter» after living three years rent-free in her parents’ home in the northeastern city of Dalian and failing China’s highly competitive postgraduate entrance exam each year, which was taken by a record 4.7 million people this year.

“I went through a horrible mental breakdown when I failed my first attempt, as well as a romantic relationship at the same time,” said Gong, whose parents cover his expenses but don’t pay him a salary. “The time I spent at home served as a mental buffer for me.”

Is it a profession?

As more people declare themselves children full time, a debate has arisen as to whether it really is a profession.

“Compared to previous years, young people who are now unemployed and staying home to study for exams have less confidence that they will be successful in their exam preparation and job search,” Lu Xi, an assistant professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, told NBC News via email.

«Psychologically, the term ‘full-time kids’ leaves room for denial and self-loathing, making it more acceptable to many.»

Lu said that some Chinese state media organizations are trying to «rationalize» and «glorify» the emergence of full-time children as «filial piety.»

No matter the «embellishments,» he said, «the the underlying essence remains unemployment, and nothing else.

Labor market in Qingzhou, China
A job fair in Qingzhou, China, last week. Youth unemployment was a record 21.3% in June, according to official data.CFOTO/Future Publishing via Getty Images

‘Involuntary decision’

Neither Zhang nor Gong would consider being a full-time daughter their first choice. Their lives have been greatly affected by China’s highly competitive society and an economy that is recover from the pandemic slower than expected.

“If my business had been very successful, I probably wouldn’t have become a full-time daughter,” Zhang said. «It’s an involuntary decision, but it’s a choice.»

Both said they had received hostile comments from acquaintances and online commenters, who accused them of «chewing the old,» a Chinese slang term for young people who depend solely on their parents for a living.

Gong said that her relatives even criticized her in person for “being lazy and stealing” her parents’ money.

“It may not sound ‘decent’ at first to outsiders, especially those who like to label others negatively,” he said, “but I think we need to allow those moments to exist. Experiencing ups and downs, that’s life.»

Victor Gong, Cici Gong’s father, said that he was also not very supportive at first. But he soon changed his mind after speaking with his daughter and his wife, Cici’s mother.

“I mean, there’s news about how hard it is for college graduates to pass exams and get jobs everywhere,” he said. “Full-time daughter or ‘chewing on the old’, whatever you call it, it can’t be a permanent thing. We know it’s just a stage for her, [but] we wanted to give him some support when he needed it.”

“Cici is our only daughter and we are happy to have her around, even if it is for a while,” he added.

enduring challenges

Mao Xuxin, chief economist at Britain’s National Institute for Economic and Social Research, said it was a «worrying» sign for young people if they choose to become children full-time as «it’s very difficult for them to get out of it and get back into society.»

In recent years, Mao said, young people in China have started looking for less demanding and shorter-term jobs. Then came the rise of the «lay flat» movement, which embraces doing the bare minimum to get by rather than working tirelessly. Now, he said, some have taken the next step by asking their parents for help.

Since Zhang became a full-time daughter, she said, everyone in her family
Since Zhang became a full-time daughter, she said, everyone in her family «is much happier than before.»Courtesy of Jia Zhang

Lu, the professor at the National University of Singapore, said the wave of unemployment in China «may have just started.»

“In the absence of additional job creation, the ‘full-time kids’ phenomenon will be exacerbated, creating a vicious cycle,” he said. “Average household disposable income will shrink, resulting in a decline in overall social consumption, which in turn will limit social ability to create new jobs, creating more unemployment and therefore more full-time children.”

‘A blessing’

Some full-time kids see it as a short-term option rather than a career, including Gong, who recently received an offer to become a full-time English teacher.

Zhang said she could stay a full-time kid for a while because both she and her parents are happy with how it’s working out, though she’s open to new opportunities.

But he dismissed the idea that he is «chewing on the old,» saying that he actually worked for his parents and contributed to the family.

“Since I became a full-time daughter, everyone, including my parents, is much happier than before,” she said. «I did not have enough time to accompany my parents, but now I do.»

“I cherish every moment with them. It’s a blessing to all of us.»