In China, the ‘Full-Time Kid’ Life Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up to Be
If someone told you that she was a full-time mom, you’d immediately know what she meant. But what if she referred to herself as a “full-time daughter”?
In fairness, prior to late 2022, most Chinese wouldn’t get it, either. That’s when the “Full-time Children Work Chat” group popped up on the popular social media platform Douban. Within months, it had attracted thousands of self-identified “full-time children” who’ve embraced “a new kind of non-workplace lifestyle.” They have no formal employment; instead, they perform chores for their parents or keep them company in exchange for an allowance and free rent.
The initial response in some corners of the Chinese internet was envy. Viral videos from a handful of full-time kid influencers depicted an idyllic life of late mornings, home-cooked meals, afternoon tea, and taking their parents square dancing at night.
But those experiences are the exception, not the rule. Most group members describe a more prosaic existence: cooking and caring for their aging parents in exchange for room and board — all while trying to navigate a historically bad job market.
When I see criticisms of full-time kids as merely a rebranded form of ken lao, or sponging off your parents, I can’t help but think of a friend of mine who became a self-proclaimed “full-time daughter.” She cooks three meals a day for her parents, makes sure they take their medicine, and cleans the house. Most of her remaining time is spent caring for her disabled mother. She reads to her, takes her for walks, helps her with her rehab exercises, and washes her bedsheets. She also looks after her grandmother, who is almost 90 and has trouble walking. The only time she has to herself is after everyone else has gone to bed.
Her motivation for returning home wasn’t some fantasy about sponging off her parents, but her father’s heart attack. He recovered, but he no longer had the energy to care for his wife or mother-in-law. If my friend didn’t move back home, she’d need to hire someone to take care of them — at a cost of over 6,000 yuan ($830) a month, far more than she could afford.
In general, perceptions of the full-time kids phenomenon, whether online or in Chinese media, depend on whether the families in question originally planned to hire a caregiver. If the answer is yes, then the decision to become a full-time kid becomes an expression of filial piety. If not, the individual in question is seen as merely sponging off their parents under the guise of helping them out.
That’s not entirely fair, however. A scan of the Douban group suggests most full-time kids don’t see their role as a long-term solution, but a stopgap while they look for work elsewhere.
With youth unemployment hitting 20.8% in May, the search could take a while. This week, Huai Jinpeng, China’s Minister of Education, attributed some of the problem to the tendency of young Chinese toward “delayed employment,” including engaging in flexible employment or holding out for better opportunities.
Comments on Douban suggest there is something to this, as young adults stress their long-term goal is to pass the civil service or postgraduate exams — both of which have become increasingly competitive as the job market has tightened.
Xia Xiaohua, an education vlogger on Xiaohongshu who claims to have served as an interviewer for the civil service exam 37 times, even recommends moving home while cramming for the test, saying it can help young people save energy while their parents can ensure they don’t slack off.
Whatever the cause, moving back in with their parents has become the final line of defense for many Chinese. A few days ago, a friend of mine who has worked in Shanghai for many years told me she was considering going home to become a full-time daughter. I urged her not to move back and instead to hang tough. Her answer was memorable: “Of course I’ll hang tough. But I’m glad I have the choice.”
Not everyone’s parents are so supportive. A recent article in the influential news magazine Life Week profiled the “loss of dignity” felt by some full-time children. The article profiles a young woman, identified only as “Xiao O,” who spent 600,000 yuan and two years getting a master’s degree in Australia. After graduation, she returned to China but was unable to find a job. Finally, she chose to become a full-time daughter and move back in with her parents.
After a three-month honeymoon period, Xiao O’s parents started to grow increasingly prickly and demanding. At one point, Xiao O tearfully asked them whether they really wanted her help. Her parents’ answer was cruel: “Do you think we need you to clean the house, buy groceries, and wash the pots? We pay you 3,000 yuan a month so you don’t feel embarrassed. Full-time daughter? More like a deadbeat daughter.”
The exchange raises a deeper question: Are parents and children really suited to an employer-employee relationship? Karl Marx once wrote of how “The bourgeoisie has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and has reduced the family relation to a mere money relation.” Family is once again the last line of defense; only now, young Chinese feel the need to call themselves full-time children to justify and rationalize receiving help from their parents. Who knows what tomorrow will bring?
Translator: David Ball; editor: Wu Haiyun.
(Header image: Shijue/VCG)