Hikikomori, N-po and lying flat - Snapping in East Asia

A commentary by Zhaowen Liu
Dynamics of Inclusive Prosperity
Person looking at a phone

Recently Martin de Jong asked me to read his latest blogpost on the phenomenon of snapping in North America and his worries about the potential similar issues in the Netherlands. Originally coming from China and reading his thoughts I could not help but think of the ultra-stressful East Asian societies. I guess anyone with the same East Asian background as me will understand what I am referring to. How have the younger generations there responded when they “see no light at the end of the tunnel of their life anymore”?

Hikikomori in Japan

According to a 2015 report by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), 10.1% of Japanese aged 15-29 were not in employment, education, or training (the "NEETs") and rely on their parents for financial support. Known as "Hikikomori", they are not interested in ideals or politics, have a low desire to spend money, shop mainly at low-cost convenience stores, enjoy staying at home playing games and watching TV programs, and many of them choose not to get married or have children. This group was born in the early years of the Heisei era, namely the post-90s in Japan. The word "recession" was used throughout their childhood, making them feel that nothing would change even if they tried their best. Social security and the support of their parents ensured that they did not end up on the streets.

N-po generation in South Korea

In April 2023, 660,000 people between the ages of 20 and 39 in South Korea were registered as the “resting” population. They do not work, do not take exams, and have no desire to have children. Giving up on N number of things is also the thought behind the name giving to this generation, N-po.,. A lot of young people have returned to their hometowns and are living with their parents, also known as "kangaroo generation".One of their daily activities is to watch "daze live". In the heat of the long summer, they browse through live-streaming websites only to end up staring blankly at NASA's Earth Live orfishing/planting vloggers. On social media, young Koreans have launched the "no-spend challenge" and video clips of their money-saving experiences are the most popular content. Many young people who were once keen on designer brands are now buying second-hand clothes by kilo. After more than 200 policies to promote fertility in South Korea, the total fertility rate in 2022 has fallen to a record low of 0.78.

The “lying flat” and Stay-at-home Economy in China

While many Chinese companies are still buzzing about the "demographic dividend" and using “996 (9am-9pm, 6 working days a week)” and “985 (the higher ranked 39 universities in China)” as guidelines for hiring,  the young generations have started a silent protest by "lying flat (躺平)". As China's economy slows down and universities expand, fierce competition in the job market devalues diplomas earned over decades of hard study. On the other hand, mortgages and the high cost of marriage and childcare are making work-life balance an unreachable luxury. Unlike the “Chinese dream” themes of the Millennials, this current generation of internet-natives has started to communicate on various social media about how to live the most uncomplicated and low-stress life at the lowest cost. Coincidentally, they are living the Chinese version of the Japanese Hikikomori and Korean N-po generations: working temporary jobs, living alone in big cities or back home with their parents, practicing low consumption, and with daily activities mainly consisting of watching TV dramas and constantly browsing video clips. Corresponding to this phenomenon, China's fertility rate is declining year by year, from 17.86 million newborns in 2016 to 9.56 million in 2022, a drop of 46%. The OECD predicts that by 2035, 20% of China's population will be over 65 years old, which will add to the pressure on social security and pensions.

Chinese internet companies see a business opportunity in the crisis, which they call the " Stay-at-home Economy (宅经济)" and "Sinking market (下沉市场)". Unlike traditional businesses that tend to target high-spending groups, these internet companies are targeting these home-bound generations and low-income groups in rural areas, tapping into their anxiety and idleness. One of the most iconic of these companies is "Pinduoduo (拼多多)" that started up in 2015. With huge subsidies on delivering and unbelievably low priced products, it attracted 500 million users in three years and has reached a third of the market capitalization of Alibaba (in 2023 April). Another representative company is the Chinese version of TikTok – Douyin (抖音) – where video clips are spreading like psychotropic opium against the backdrop of the rapid spread of the internet to rural areas. A happy and carefree virtual world is opened up by funny and chatty anchors with brainwashing songs. Socializing, shopping with big discounts, tracking hot news…… Big data pinpointing your hobbies and needs, whether you are 5 or 95, all your free time can be quickly filled with instant pleasure. When you put your phone down for a moment, your anxiety may still return. You have to calculate the rent you have to pay to work in a big city, the blank stares you have to endure when looking for a job, the tiredness of working overtime until midnight, and the financial pressure from marriage and childbirth…… Never mind, let's just browse one more video clip!

Upon realizing the “running to stand still” situation they are finding themselves in, the younger generations in East Asia have found their own quirky ways to navigate the chaos – and that is to lie down! So far this has probably only happened in a relatively small group, but without efforts to recognize the underlying issues and work towards creating a more inclusive and supportive environment, the “new epidemic” will not be a surprise in the near future.


PhD student
Zhaowen Liu

Compare @count study programme

  • @title

    • Duration: @duration
Compare study programmes