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Is China’s “Lying Flat” Movement the Wave of the Future?

These last couple of years China’s “lying flat” movement has been making the news internationally. The phenomenon may recall to mind such phenomena as Japan’s hikikomori, or American stereotypes of the country’s young men turning into basement-dwelling gamers rather than getting jobs, dating, marrying and starting families. However, in line with the reality that conventional Western opinion is quick to regard forms of nonconformism and dissent that it would condemn in its own country in a foaming-at-the-mouth manner as heroic when they emerge in a place like China (or Russia), the coverage of the Chinese phenomenon differs significantly. Where the tendency has been to conceive of the hikikomori as sufferers of a mental disorder of wholly psychological rather than sociological significance, and Americans dropping out of the job/dating market as lazy, immature or worse (rather than sick, merely unvirtuous), where discussion of the “lying flat” is concerned there is an acknowledgment that there is a social conflict here, with the young rebelling against the “rat race” and what it stands for, a life devoted to the grueling careerism summed up as “996.ICU,” and the consumerism that keeps them chained to it — with this a response to the brutality of working life in contemporary China, and one might also speculate, the slowing of material progress for the many as the country’s earlier frantic economic growth slows down.

In bluntly discussing those aspects of the matter we find ourselves looking at aspects of contemporary reality the conventional prefer to ignore or dismiss — not least that, contrary to the aspirational rhetoric and the pontification of the Jack Mas of the world, the world of work as many, and likely most, experience it in the modern world, is a truly wretched thing, suffered through solely for the paycheck people need in order to live and for no other reason; that for decades slow growth and stagnant or declining incomes for the many have been a function of people being asked to work harder for less, with no prospect of better, only worse. We also acknowledge another thing commonly ignored or dismissed, namely that young people just entering the job market, often after a more brutal and brutalizing pursuit of educational credentials than their parents experienced (think of just how nuts the Cult of the Good School has gone), get the worst of it while being least resigned to it, being at the bottom of the hierarchy while having fewer of the commitments that make working people afraid to rock the boat. (They are less likely than their elders to have homes, marriages, children, the more in as knowing something of their declining prospects even before hitting the market they have been cautious.)

We also find ourselves facing the fact that all this, far from being unique to China, increasingly the norm the world over, and producing backlash all over the world. (Americans dismiss their basement-dwelling gamers as refusing to grow up. They have a tougher time dismissing the long gainfully employed adults, who so recently helped to hold the world together amid an unprecedented pandemic, driving the country’s Great Resignation.) Meanwhile billionaires and government officials who think snarling sanctimoniously at those poorer and younger than they will make them fall into line only make themselves even more ridiculous than they already are with (yet another) display of that kind of self-importance that leaves the parody-minded comedian nowhere to go.

Contemplating all this one may wonder if there might not be a better way may wonder if society could not, at this stage of development, when at least in the richer countries growth has been so weak for so long in comparison with what came before, that even the most Establishment economists toss around terms like “secular stagnation”; when it seems that much of the work we do may be of questionable value, while rising consumption may not necessarily be the best way to deliver a better life, and past a certain point may actually be failing altogether in providing that; when at least the hope is emerging that we could perhaps give vastly greater numbers of people a decent life at orders-of-magnitude lower cost and material throughput, all of which seems the more important amid the ecological crisis; a reconsideration of how we live, and expect other people to live their lives, is not grossly overdue. We may, for example, wonder if society should not have a “slow lane” for those for whom frenzied attempts to get ahead that seem increasingly futile are not the essence of a fulfilling life. However, in anything like today’s world such a compromise looks like a fantasy at best.

Originally published at https://raritania.blogspot.com.

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Nader Elhefnawy

Nader Elhefnawy

Nader Elhefnawy is the author of the thriller The Shadows of Olympus. Besides Medium, you can find him online at his personal blog, Raritania.