By FRAN WANG
SIX years after moving into a maze of bunkhouses on the outskirts of Beijing, China, 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 the 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-sq metre flat in Tangjialing village, with her husband, a computer hardware salesman.
The apartment is so small that the couple cannot have a proper wardrobe, in fact they use their only chair as a makeshift dresser.
Yu however admits the cheap rent of 550 Yuan (S$113) a month makes the hardship 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".
This was because they had good 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.
Many job seekers are forced into a fierce battle for decent jobs and an unenviable life in the cramped suburbs.
China had more than six million new university graduates last year, but only 87% of them found jobs, while nearly 800,000 are yet to be employed.
Beijing alone has more than 100,000 "ants", and other mega-cities such as Xiamen, Shanghai, Guangzhou in the south have similar worker armies, according to a 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 Beijing's 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 recently landed a three-year contract with a new company.
He had a 50% boost in salary and earns up top to 4,500 yuan, now.
"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.
"I'm moving closer towards my goals."
Not all graduates are as lucky as Huang.
A survey done in early 2009 by Lian and his team on 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.
"Some courses are rather old and can no longer meet the needs of the current social development," said Hu Shoujun, a sociology professor at Fudan University in Shanghai.
"Too many universities are offering similar courses, causing a relative oversupply of graduates in certain majors," he said.
Back in Tangjialing, Yu said her situation was precarious - while she took home sales bonuses on rare occasions which could be as much as 20,000 yuan, some months were not good for the couple.
"We will not stay in Beijing forever and will go home sooner or later," she said.
Yu, from the northern Hebei province hopes to open a clothing shop in her hometown of Cangzhou.