A security device saleswoman Yu Ping walks into her small room in the maze of bunkhouses on the outskirts of Beijing. (AFP Photo)

Six years after moving into a maze of bunkhouses on the outskirts of Beijing, Yu Ping still frowns as she heads home along the muddy lanes lined with grocery stores, web cafes and hair salons.

The security devices saleswoman is one of hundreds of thousands of young university graduates — known as the “ants” — scraping by on meagre salaries from unstable jobs as they try to take advantage of China’s economic miracle.

“I’m planning to move — I’ve had enough of living here,” said the 27-year-old Yu, who lives in a tiny 10-square-metre (110-square-foot) flat in Tangjialing village with her husband, a computer hardware salesman.

The apartment is so minuscule that the couple cannot have a proper wardrobe — they use their only chair as a makeshift dresser.

Yu however admits the cheap rent of 550 yuan ($112) a month makes the hardships worth it, saying a flat in the city centre would be “extravagant “, given the couple’s combined earnings of just 4,400 yuan a month.

University graduates in China were once dubbed “the favoured children of Heaven” — they won decent jobs from the government upon graduation, and housing was one of the many perks offered to them. But the country’s three decades of economic reform have made such privileges a thing of the past and forced many 20-somethings into a fierce battle for decent jobs — and an unenviable life in the cramped suburbs.

China had more than six million new university graduates in 2009, but by year’s end, only 87 per cent of them had found jobs, meaning nearly 800,000 were yet to be employed. Beijing alone has more than 100,000 “ants “, and other mega-cities such as Shanghai and Guangzhou in the south have similar worker armies, according to the book “Ants Tribe”, based on two years of surveys among the huge workforce.

“They have high aims and expectations,” said Lian Si, the book’s lead author and an associate professor at the University of International Business and Economics. “They put up with the poor conditions in these villages in order to strive for their goals and future,” he said.

Software engineer Huang Guolong is an ant colony survivor. After 18 months in Tangjialing, he has landed a three-year contract with a new company, and his monthly wage was boosted by 50 per cent to 4,500 yuan.

“I’m here to build an economic foundation, gain work experience and be more capable,” said the 26-year-old from the central province of Hubei, who says he aims to eventually become a manager at a first-rate IT company.

Not all of the faceless residents of the “anthill” are as lucky as Huang.

A survey done in early 2009 by Lian and his team, conducted among more than 500 Beijing “ants”, found that about one-third of them had no formal employment contracts, with many changing jobs twice a year.

Their average monthly salary stood at just 2,150 yuan — little more than half of the capital’s average at the time.

Some experts say university programmes are outdated and too similar, creating a glut of graduates in certain fields whose job prospects are dim.

Back in Tangjialing, Yu said her situation was precarious — while she took home sales bonuses on rare occasions of as much as 20,000 yuan, some months were dire for the couple.

“We will not stay in Beijing forever and will go home sooner or later,” said the woman from northern Hebei province, adding she hoped to open a clothing shop in her hometown of Cangzhou. — AFP