Do the middle-aged have the right to be a “good-for-nothing”?
I came across this heated debate among Chinese netizens because of a recent incident: the social media accounts of Chu Yin, an academic and internet personality, have been temporarily banned. While he was blocked for unknown reasons, some netizens guessed that it was because of his outspoken personality.
Barrage of criticism
Chu is an academic with a strong social media presence and has even appeared in TV variety shows such as I Can I BB (《奇葩说》). His controversial comments often draw attention and public ire, and would even land him on Weibo’s list of trending topics.
For example, he once suggested that single women who do not have a future in the big cities should return to their hometowns as soon as possible. He also defended the idea of “lying flat” (躺平) among Chinese youths, and suggested that people over the age of 28 should stop studying.
This time, the topic that triggered backlash was whether people above the age of 35 should be content with being a “good-for-nothing” (废物) and whether they had the right to be a “good-for-nothing”.
Chu’s comments immediately landed him a spot on the list of trending topics because they stood out like a sore thumb in a public opinion space that advocates a forward-looking and constructive attitude.
During a social media livestream in early February, Chu candidly shared about the pressures middle-aged people struggle with. He said, “Adults have the right to be a good-for-nothing. The reason why we don’t want our children to be a good-for-nothing is because they have a future ahead of them.”
He added that it is quite comfortable to be a good-for-nothing after the age of 35, and that “middle-aged people should be content and not feel guilty that they are good-for-nothings in their old age. What’s wrong with being a good-for-nothing when one is old?”
Chu’s comments immediately landed him a spot on the list of trending topics because they stood out like a sore thumb in a public opinion space that advocates a forward-looking and constructive attitude. Some netizens criticised that given Chu’s status as a former university professor and a public figure with over a million followers, how could he be so negative as to encourage middle-aged people to give up on themselves?
Furthermore, calling someone “good-for-nothing” is also extremely disrespectful. Some media outlets lambasted Chu’s remarks as “a serious load of crap”, while others ridiculed him by saying, “If being a good-for-nothing is so comfortable, why do you still work so hard to post daily short videos and appear on programmes?”
Lying flat versus being ‘good-for-nothing’
Chu responded on social media, “In our society, many people are way too stressed. Our lives are ruined by involution (内卷, meaningless intense competition). In this sense, we have the right to be a good-for-nothing, whether as a form of resistance or relief. That’s all I’m trying to say.”
He urged middle-aged people not to be too hard on themselves, success is not a must, and there’s no need to feel discouraged or to feel resentful about being mediocre. “You only live once, let be,” he advised.
Chu bemoaned that the Chinese are “too tired”, “too caught up in involution”, and are fussing over nothing. He questioned, “Just ask yourself, can you find happiness in the subtlety and simplicity of everyday life?”
... there are many netizens who actually think that Chu’s remarks are “dreadful truths ” that make sense, even though they can be better phrased.
However, settling for mediocrity and being a “good-for-nothing” are two different things. The choice of the word “good-for-nothing” to describe a simple and peaceful life is also questionable. But Chu’s remarks touched a sore spot in Chinese society, especially among the middle-aged. In contrast to mainstream criticism, there are many netizens who actually think that Chu’s remarks are “dreadful truths ” that make sense, even though they can be better phrased.
In fact, discussions on whether middle-aged people have the right to be “good-for-nothing” and whether the younger generation should just “lie flat” are two sides of the same coin. It is an emotional response to being fed up with involution and wanting to escape the rat race.
A while ago when I was back in Singapore, someone asked me, “Are Chinese youths really ‘lying flat’?”
I chuckled and said, “Well, Chinese youths are usually more ‘involuted’ than Singaporean youths.”
Looking puzzled, my friend asked, “Then why do they keep talking about ‘lying flat’?”
“Maybe because they can’t actually do that!” I replied.
Similarly, it is easier said than done for middle-aged people to become “good-for-nothing”. As part of the sandwich generation, this group born after 1975 and in the 1980s face the risk of being replaced by the younger generation in the workforce and are responsible for taking care of both their elderly parents and young children at home. The pressures that the middle-aged face in their marriage, family life, children’s education and careers are far worse than the pressures of the younger generation.
Less and less hopeful
Someone once said: the young have healthy bodies and do not shoulder responsibilities; they can stay afloat even when life throws a few stones at them. However, the middle-aged are no longer so healthy, yet their burdens are heavy. What a struggle just to stay afloat!
Hence, middle-aged people who are tired of stress and competition, are yearning to have a comfortable life that is free from involution. While this runs counter to the mainstream rhetoric for being forward-looking and constructive, it is what they truly want.
This anxiety is ballooning as China exits from a high-growth era, and competition intensifies as the economic cake is growing at a much slower pace.
In this sense, Chu’s remarks don’t seem that jarring after all. However, amid China’s fiercely competitive society, being a “good-for-nothing” is a luxury many people can’t afford. In reality, one must still muster up the courage and bear with it regardless of how fed up or involuted one may be.
From sang culture (丧文化, youths who are unmotivated and on the brink of depression) to Buddha’s ways (佛系, learning to live life with Buddhist wisdom); from “lying flat” in a protest against involution, to becoming a “good-for-nothing” who’s free of desire, all these show that Chinese adults are dissatisfied with high-pressured life, and also reflect the anxiety that has permeated Chinese society. This anxiety is ballooning as China exits from a high-growth era, and competition intensifies as the economic cake is growing at a much slower pace.
Three years of the pandemic have battered Chinese society and caused a huge impact. Economic growth has slowed significantly, employment has fallen as a result of the market downturn, and confidence in the community is hovering at a low point. Whether young or middle-aged, there is less and less hope for living a comfortable life, and this will be a problem that China's leaders will have to face for a long time to come.
This article was first published in Lianhe Zaobao as “年轻人的躺平和中年人的废”.
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