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China New Generation Migrant Workers


About 45% of China’s roughly 145 million floating migrant population works in the manufacturing industry, and the majority of them were born after 1980. This was a landmark year for the country as it transform from a socialist, centralized and planned economy to a more or less market-oriented economy with so-called “Chinese characteristics.” The intersection of this new generation of migrant workers and the global market through the medium of manufacturing has become a subject of great interest to people around the world and in China, who seek to understand their unique personal and work arenas.

This paper provides a comprehensive picture of the young migrant workers’ work and lives in a factory setting based on survey and in-depth interview data collected in a medium-size Shenzhen-based electronics factory in May 2010. It explores their social expectations and suffering; their satisfactions and dissatisfactions as production-line workers; and their future goals. The findings show that the new generation migrant workers migrate more out of individual preferences than family needs. They are primarily leaving home to seek independence more than economic returns, and they perceive factory work as the first stop on a long journey of establishing themselves in society.

If Leaving, Remitting and Returning are the three key words that categorize the old generation of migrant workers who were born before 1980, then Leaving, Searching and Becoming are the main themes for the new generation who were born after 1980. Like their parents’ generation, they are transient in nature, but more in the sense of juggling between career choices rather than round-tripping between rural home and urban work.


First Advisor

Richard Tessler