Micro-level experiences of macro-level change: A cohort perspective on China's shift away from state-sector employment

Wen Fan, Fangsheng Zhu, Phyllis Moen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


An expanding and more lucrative private sector characterizes China's economic transition over the last four decades. But have these labor market opportunities been equally distributed, or does historical timing of labor force entries matter? Drawing on a life-course, cohort perspective and nationally representative occupational histories (2003 and 2008 Chinese General Social Surveys), we examine the odds of a private-sector first job and of shifts from state- to private-sector jobs for two reform cohorts entering the labor market between 1978 and 2008. We find cohort variations in the impact of structural location (education and party affiliation) in predicting sector of first job and sector shifts. The least educated (high school dropouts) from the Late Reform cohort are most impacted by the expanding private sector, in terms of their first job (in private/hybrid firms and self-employment). Party membership takes on a different meaning over time, promoting Early Reform cohort members’ private-sector entry, but being a deterrent for Late Reform cohort members. A key potential consequence of Chinese economic reform based on our cohort comparisons: increasing transfer of those with less educational and political credentials from the state to the private sector, either through first-job availability or through (forced) self-employment following layoffs. The China case demonstrates the value of a cohort and life-course perspective grounded in careful institutional and historical analysis for capturing the impact of historical timing in shifting opportunity structures shaping individuals’ work lives and for understanding social change.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)77-86
Number of pages10
JournalAdvances in Life Course Research
StatePublished - Mar 2018

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
China transitions from a state socialist redistributive economy to a market economy beginning in 1978 and intensifying from 1992 on. The 1980s were dominated by a rapid increase in employment in collective firms such as township and village enterprises, whereas the 1990s witnessed accelerating growth in employment in private companies. Collective enterprises, unlike state-owned enterprises, are usually sponsored by local governments, and are not directly under the administration or financial support of the central government. The share of private enterprises in industrial output, as shown in Fig. 1 , increased from virtually none before 1978 to surpassing the state sector in 1997 (34%). Four changes in institutional arrangements characterize China’s economic reform.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2018 Elsevier Ltd

Copyright 2018 Elsevier B.V., All rights reserved.


  • China
  • First-job sector
  • Generational cohort
  • Life course
  • Sector shift
  • State

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