Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Paul Attewell

Committee Members

Ruth Milkman

Margaret M. Chin

Subject Categories

Business Administration, Management, and Operations | Entrepreneurial and Small Business Operations | Fashion Business | Industrial Organization | International Business | Labor Economics | Labor Relations | Operations and Supply Chain Management | Regional Economics | Sociology


Migrant workers. Generations. Multi-generation. Social mobility. China.


Migrant workers in China have been at the center of popular news media and scholarly attention for three decades, since they started to migrate to work in factories on the coast in the post-1978 Economic Reform era. As western and central China has developed and work opportunities have arisen in these migrant-sending regions, internal migrants have started to return home. Push and pull factors of internal migration have been reversed. Poverty and lack of job opportunities used to be the push factors; they are now replaced by new push factors—long hours of work and long-distance travel to and from the coast. Family reunions as well as work and entrepreneurial opportunities at home are the new pull factors. Since the Reform, there have been two generations of migrant workers: the older generation, who were teenagers at the time of Reform (born in the late 1960s and the 1970s) and who were the first wave to migrate out, and the younger generation, who are now in their 30s (born in and after the late 1970s and the 1980s) and who entered the workforce in the late 1990s and the 2000s. At the same time, factories are relocating to western and central China. In addition to giving an inside look at what work is like in a garment factory, this dissertation documents and compares both generations’ return home. The older generation is returning home to retire or semi-retire, having made a livelihood out of their earlier migration. The younger generation is returning home on a less permanent basis, still job-hopping between the coast and home. Many of the younger generation return home to become small-scale entrepreneurs but job-hop back to coastal factories when entrepreneurship falters. I also interpret my findings in light of the larger cultural context in China to understand multi-generational life strategies and social mobility.