I was chatting with my friend A Qing the other night in his Fuzhou barbershop. A Qing is in his early 30’s, has been in the hairstyling industry since his late teens, and speaks with the authority of a sage of the industry. One evening he invited me to his shop to have an informal discussion with his assistants (助理), the young workers fresh out of junior high (chu zhong), who wash hair, clean bathrooms, and undertake other low-level shop tasks, in exchange for a small salary, free housing, and instruction in the trade of hairstyling.
A Qing’s troop of assistants consists of two males and two females. Smoking is in integral part of the barbershop culture, and as we sit down to chat, A Qing offers a cigarette to me as well as to one of the other male assistants. (The other male had already lit up one of his own). He did not offer a cigarette to the two girls.
“This industry, it used to have a lot of bad (不真贵) things associated with it. Back in the 90’s barbershops and massage parlors used to provide services which you cannot find in barbershops today (referring to prostitution). Nowdays, those industries are separate. But the bad reputation remains…I don’t allow my female employees to smoke, because this will give customers a bad impression. It will make them think they are bad girls.”
This echoes a common line of reasoning I hear when I ask why there are so few women in hairstyling these days. There is an implicit association with “bad things” that were formerly associated with the hairstyling industry. While houses of ill-repute bearing the signage “美容美发” (beautiful skin, beautiful hair) are still abundant in any Chinese urban center, it doesn’t require a sociologist to differentiate between the barbershops which actually cut hair and those with ulterior forms of income. (The primary giveaway is usually the scantily-clad women sitting near the windows, cooing at the men who pass by).
Yet the stereotype persists. And the female employees are prohibited from smoking…probably to their own benefit. At least they won’t get lung cancer.
“Hairstyling is a crappy industry to be in right now.”
“You can’t make any money.”
“It’s too much work, and not enough return.”
“This industry sucks (这个行业不行）“
This is the consensus I receive when I ask point blank: “What do you think about the current state of the hairstyling industry?” On the other hand, when I ask, “What is the best thing about this industry?” I get answers like this:
“You will always have a job.”
“You will never starve.”
“It’s impossible to be unemployed.”
This is quite the paradox. Usually when we think of a “crappy industry,” the first thing that comes to mind is unemployment. According to the 2014 CareerCast Jobs report, the worst careers in the US were news reporter and lumberjack, both industries which have seen massive unemployment and layoffs in recent years. Presumably, an industry where there is always work would be a good one, right?
I’ve been researching hairstylists and their career trajectories full-time in Fujian now for about a month, and one pattern is clear: Finding a job in the hairstyling industry is easy. Career advancement and self-actualization is not.
I’ve asked multiple stylists how they would go about finding a job if unemployed, and the answer goes like this: “Easy, just walk around, find a salon which is looking for a stylist, and start working. It wouldn’t take more than a day.” The average stylist deals with many forms of uncertainty. Unemployment, however, is not one of them. “The good thing about this industry is there’s always employment. You’re never going to starve,” one informant tells me, echoing an insight I hear again and again.
China is in the midst of an expanding labor shortage, which is becoming more acute as the One Child cohort ages into employment years. In addition, China’s maturing economy means there are increasingly diverse opportunities for young people seeking work. Meanwhile, while China has experienced significant inflation over the 7-8 years, while the earnings of hairstylists have remained flat. “The stylists I have working in my shop today, they don’t really make that much more than those ones 7 or 8 years ago when you were working for me,” Li Wen Zhong tells me. These incomes are usually around 2,500 to 4,000 per month, with free housing.
Because of this, stylists feel the constant push to expand into bigger and better things. This usually means opening up their own barbershop or salon. However, unlike the dearth of stylists, there is a glut of barbershops:
“Everybody in this industry wants to be a boss. Everybody! But look around. There are barbershops everywhere, and not enough customers. Most barbershops will fail. It’s a terrible industry.”
My tracking of former stylists echoes this assertion. Many (probably most) stylists leave the industry within 5-6 years. Never once have I been told somebody left because they couldn’t find a job. Instead, the desertion point usually comes when one realizes that the road forward is too jammed to make it worthwhile to wait one’s turn.
So there you go. You’ll never be unemployed or hungry as a stylist. But you probably won’t realize your dreams either. And for most stylists in 2015, that isn’t enough.