UK twenty somethings are changing the face of migration in China

Nyima Pratten

rexfeatures 1199278bd 300x225 UK twenty somethings are changing the face of migration in ChinaTraditionally young twenty something Chinese migrants would come to the UK for an education, to seek out opportunities and to start a better life. Many of them were very successful and contributed towards the UK economy by working hard or starting businesses. However, in the current economic climate and with entry-level jobs being cut due to the recession, are we now seeing a role reversal with unimpressed UK twenty somethings looking to China as the new land of opportunity and experiences?

It was a dismal, wet and rainy weekday evening at one of Shanghai’s most popular nightspots last Wednesday. It may have been the impending typhoon scaring off many of the locals but there was something distinctly different about my first visit back to this club in over a year. There was a staggering influx in the number of foreign clubbers, so much so that the Chinese attendees were definitely in the minority. There was one particularly big group of exuberant foreign party goers getting into the spirit of the occasion by drinking the standard whisky green tea concoction and playing Chinese dice games at their tables. When I asked who this large group of people was I was told that the CRCC’s interns, Britain’s leading provider of Chinese internships, like to come here on a Wednesday night. They were not alone however as there was a big group of European MBA students, freshly graduated from a Shanghai university, along with a mixture of other working foreigners and visitors. In each of these groups of global wanderers, there was strong UK twenty something contingent.

Shanghai might as well be Peter Pan’s Never Never Land for UK twenty somethings, with limitless opportunities, wide reaching networks and endless fun. Shanghai, like many other popular expat cities, is filled with likeminded young people that do not wish to follow in the footsteps of their parents’ generation who prioritised settling down, buying a house and starting a family over taking that third or fourth year living abroad and gaining ‘life experience’. At the weekends you can hear the shrieks of young expats drinking Bloody Mary’s at brunch, whilst trying to shake off last night’s Shanghai hangover and disdainfully discussing friends back home who are getting married or having children. These twenty somethings swear that it won’t happened to them anytime soon and insist that their lives are much more enriching/rewarding/exciting as they simultaneously order the next round of cocktails.

As time goes by, the barriers to entry for working abroad are becoming less and less problematic. Twenty somethings are able to take their pick of foreign countries to work in while we speed towards becoming a borderless, interconnected world. Asian countries, with their booming economies and seemingly low unemployment, are also becoming increasingly popular destinations for young graduates looking to begin their careers, particularly China, and it’s not hard to see why. China is the world’s emerging superpower with the second biggest economy and a population of over 1.3 billion, therefore becoming an obvious choice for career driven twenty somethings and young entrepreneurs. There is also the notion that graduates can get hired by Western companies in Asia and get promoted quickly. The message from Forbes’ editor for Asia, John Koppisch, is “look for your first job in Asia. Economies are booming and companies are often desperate for educated and skilled job seekers… Often you can get hired by a Western company [and] quickly get promoted because of the fast growth.”

Vast amounts of young British people are now moving to China; a new land of opportunity in a world riddled with economic woes. UK twenty somethings who wish to move to China can choose to study at low cost universities, take on well-respected internships or work in fields such as PR/sales/marketing, (however many are forced to moonlight as an English language teacher/hostess/bouncer to make some extra cash whilst keeping the dirty napkin detailing their cash cow business plan firmly in their back pocket). Speaking English as a first language is a massive selling point to prospective Chinese employers and the odd Mandarin phrase from the Lonely Planet travel guide can land the young twenty something a job rather easily. Working in China can lead to great experiences for a generation just starting out in their chosen fields and allows them opportunities to become involved in projects that a low level worker in the UK would never get – such as planning and organising an event for Paris Hilton’s first foray into the Chinese market at the end of the month…! Wage rates for the young, inexperienced twenty something UK citizen in China are generally not particularly high but with a network of well- placed friends around the city, many can live like kings, attending the best event and frequenting the newest bars on a pauper’s salary.

CRCC Asia is one UK company benefitting from the increased interest by young twenty something students and graduates looking to work abroad. CRSS Asia offers the UK’s twenty somethings their first taste of working life in China through internship placements. Edward Holroyd Pearce, a director at CRCC Asia, said: “China represents an exciting new market and an exchange of human talent between the countries has benefits for both.”

UK wannabe entrepreneurs are also flocking to China. Ramsay Kerr, a 24 year old University of Nottingham graduate, moved to China at the beginning of 2011 to start his own business. Since then, he has formed a successful backpacking tour company, The Dragon Trip that has been featured in the Sunday Times’ travel section. Ramsay told me “China has truly been the land of opportunity for me. The changes in China are taking place at an incredible pace and these changes are creating so much opportunity for both Chinese and foreign people who happen to be here at the right time.”

UK twenty somethings have long been heralded as the ‘lost generation’. This group has arguably suffered the most from the knock-on effects of the economic crisis; increased tuition fees and high youth unemployment to name but a few. But now it seems that many of this group are not willing to sit at home, live off government benefits and accept their lot. Twenty somethings are going out into the big wide world to seek out new possibilities – possibilities of which their parents before them may never have dreamt.

Some may question why young twenty somethings are deciding to flee the country in tough times rather than working together to pull the UK out of the economic crisis. Some may support the young twenty somethings’ decision to move because of the state of the UK economy and believe that there are simply not enough opportunities for a generation with limited working experience. But I think that it is simply because this new generation of twenty somethings put more of an emphasis on the importance of life experience, after witnessing the instability of the financial markets and the loss of job security over the past few years.

Furthermore, an increasing amount of young twenty somethings in the UK are being exposed to the possibility of gaining life experiences through traveling abroad. It is almost seen as a right of passage for some young UK students to travel to the developing world and experience a different way of life. After all, the cultural memes of the ‘gap yah’ and ‘chundering everywhere’ are cemented in UK popular culture, famous throughout the land.

Do you think it is right that UK twenty somethings are putting more emphasis on life experience and opportunities rather than focusing on future financial stability or is the tendency for young people to flit between countries, cultures and careers simply a product of our economic climate and a sign of the times?

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  • bridgebuilder78

    The Brits here are of the obnoxious Chav kind. Not doing their country proud, not really.

  • Ross Milner

    @ bridgebuilder78.
    I beg to differ. If anything the British contingency here in Shanghai are largely made up of the public/grammar school type (similar to all expat communities). Chinese society values education highly and all companies operating here are acutely aware of the British educational system and the university ranking hierarchy. To work/study in China you need a solid educational background and for whatever reason ‘chavs’ rarely make it into the red brick universities that employers seek.

  • bridgebuilder78

    But your points certainly don’t seem to explain the drunken chav behavior so prevalent here. Maybe this is what being well-educated amounts to these days in Britain: being a Chav is the norm.

  • Tom


    Not sure what your going on about. Brits all over the world enjoy a drink – it doesnt necessarily mean they are all ‘chavs’…

    Interesting article. There are quite a number – by no means huge – of UK 20 somethings in Guangzhou as well as, most noticeably, Spanish, French and German graduates and its pretty clear from speaking to them that the number wouldnt be as high if there were opportunities going back home. That said, I defo agree with Nyima’s point about there being a greater sense of adventure/priority in life experience over settling down with kids among the current generation of UK 20 somethings. Myself included.

    From my experience, a lot of companies in China, both foreign and local, are keen on acquiring competent English-speaking graduates with a range of skill-sets. As Nyima mentioned, pr, sales & marketing are up there but also in areas such as engineering (quality control, chemical engineering, architecture/urban planning) and IT. I’d definitely recommend UK graduates who haven’t found something worthwhile back home to get out (t)here and give it a try, even just for a few months.

    If the prices of CRCC Asia put people off then my advice would be to get in direct touch with UK (foreign/local also depending on your language skills) SMEs that have operations in China as they are more likely to respond to your request and be flexible on adding a young British intern to their staff. If working for a company isnt your thing, there are some fantastic charities/NGOs or media companies (magazines, events, photography/film) operating out here that are always looking for extra help.

  • bridgebuilder78

    “Not sure what your going on about. Brits all over the world enjoy a drink – it doesnt necessarily mean they are all ‘chavs’…”

    No, alcohol consumption itself is not the problem; it’s the behavior after it that distinguishes the Brits here. Being loud, rude, obnoxious, and disrespectful do not endear the Brits to anyone here. So yes, they are chavs.

  • Max White

    @bridgebuilder78:disqus you seems to be mis-appropraiting the word Chav, if you not British its probably hard to be use a word which has such deeply class based overtones but it’s not a particular nice word at any rate and dismissing the entire ex-pat community as Chav because some have seemed loud and obnoxious to you is pretty offensive on quite a few levels.For a start, it implies that the only explanation for such behaviour is education and means, rather than the more obvious context of where you’ve come accross the behaviour and differing cultural expectations of what is deemed acceptable.

    Is it just me, or did this article read like a press release for CRCC? Isn’t there something counter-intuitive with portraying the reasons to move China as a life experience when it’s not particularly re-nowned as particularlly strong in the cultural and entertainment market. Isn’t the booming economy and moving up corporate ladders arguments to say that the emmigrants are looking for long-term finacial incentives?

    Surely the “increased tuition fees and high youth unemployment” don’t apply to the well-educated emmigrants as they finished university before the tuition fees and are clearly qualified enough to get jobs overseas? Isn’t the sentiment that they “are not willing to sit at home,
    live off government benefits and accept their lot” alittle offensive, implying that they our under qualified are simply to lazy to get jobs abroad and isn’t it inconsistent with the authors implication that they’re going to China to have fun?

    Are they hard working emmigrants moving to a booming economy for their future and just happen to be notable amongst the local clubbing environment because they brought up in the highly individualised cultural expectations of the UK, progeniator of a large amount innovation in dance music? OR are they the lazy thrill seekers who’d be on the dole in the UK but can take up China’s famous slack in the unskilled labour market to take advantage of their world-renowed wild clubbing experience?

    Sorry Nyima, I don’t buy it, it’s not like you’ve even set this article up as clearly explicated personal experience or something credible, you’ve just listed some supposed novelties for young people, such as green tea drinks; a complete lack of any statistical evidence showing theres any increase in emmigration and a conspicous amount of column space for CRCC….

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