(Bloomberg) -- Ivy Zhang figured she had it made.

Fresh out of school after studying chemistry, she joined one of China’s biggest property companies in 2016, as the country’s real estate market was taking off. She worked until 11 p.m. every day and was transferred to a bigger city after being designated a “sales champion.” She pampered herself in her limited time off by regularly buying $550 spa packages. Money was so plentiful that she didn’t have to think about it much. “The bank account was just a series of numbers,” Zhang says.

Everybody wanted what Zhang and her colleagues were selling. Owning property was so essential it was often a prerequisite for marriage. Prices never seemed to fall, so condos served the combined functions of wealth storage, insurance and retirement savings. Real estate at one point accounted for about a quarter of gross domestic product, according to Bloomberg Economics. Some estimates were even higher.

But those heady days didn’t last. Even though President Xi Jinping warned that “houses are for living in, not speculation,” by 2021 developers were selling homes faster than they could build them and piling on debt in search of expansion. When the government suddenly cracked down on borrowing, it all fell apart. Many homebuyers were left waiting on stalled construction, sparking angry protests across the country. Developers including Country Garden Holdings Co. and the collapsed giant China Evergrande Group defaulted on bond debts. Government revenue plunged. Images of tracts of empty buildings and uncompleted public works became global symbols of the nation’s waning confidence and disgruntlement with Xi’s handling of the world’s second-largest economy.

And a cohort of young professionals who thought they’d found an escalator into China’s affluent middle class had their life upended. What seemed like a lifelong career turned out to be a moment in a bubble. The slump has tossed some 500,000 people out of the property sector in the three years through 2023, according to Ke Yan Zhi Ku, a real estate research group. That’s not counting workers in related industries such as construction and marketing. They’re all facing setbacks in the middle of their careers, forced to make skill adjustments “on an epic scale,” says Alex Capri, senior fellow at the National University of Singapore. “The property meltdown is feeding a wider sense of somber reflection.”

The days when some real estate companies doled out Mercedes-Benzes as yearend bonuses are a distant memory, but many analysts say this isn’t rock bottom yet. The housing sector’s economic heft may shrink to about 16% of China’s GDP by 2026, according to Bloomberg Economics. That possibility threatens to put about 5 million people—equal to the population of Ireland—at risk of unemployment or reduced incomes, the analysts wrote. Even young workers in their prime are struggling to find jobs, with the youth unemployment rate reaching 15.3% after China revised its data methodology. “People are very depressed and scared,” says Anne Stevenson-Yang, co-founder of J Capital Research Ltd. “The situation is very severe.”

Zhang, 30, who says she helped sell almost 1 billion yuan ($139 million) worth of apartments for Country Garden, has resorted to peddling health supplements on social media to pay the bills. So far she’s earning nowhere near enough, selling three items a month. It’s a far cry from the days when she earned as much as the equivalent of $83,000 a year. She and her husband have postponed having a baby, and she scours the web for discounted offers, cooks her own meals to avoid takeout and minimizes socializing to cut expenses. “If you still want to live like before, you’re basically dreaming,” Zhang says. “If I spent 3,000 yuan in the past, now I’m looking to see if I can cut it down to 2,000. Then I’ll see if I can cut it to a thousand. As long as I can survive.”

The pain isn’t limited to salespeople. Ivan Li, 28, lost his position as an investor relations manager in Hong Kong twice. Most developers stopped issuing dollar bonds in the $203 billion market, among the biggest in the world for high-yield debt when times were good. Investors ceased buying the asset class as prices cratered, and communication between debt holders and companies petered out. “Gradually, as the crisis grew, you could feel that engaging with the likes of overseas investors and analysts became the least of management’s concerns,” Li says.

Charlie Zeng, a former worker at developers including China Vanke Co., who in a good year earned the equivalent of more than $250,000, spent a year looking for work. In his most desperate moment, he volunteered to take a 90% pay cut. After 70 interviews he received a few offers, only to have them all rescinded. Although he eventually found a job, he remains pessimistic about real estate. “There’s no future in this industry,” Zeng says. “The sector’s been abandoned.”

Apartment and commercial property sales this year are expected to tank 45% from 2021, according to data compiled by Bloomberg and estimates from Fitch Ratings Inc. The value of new-home sales from the 100 biggest real estate companies was down about 45% in April from a year earlier. Even China Vanke—once seen as a surefire survivor given its state backing—is coming under pressure, with its credit rating cut to junk status.

Consumers, meanwhile, have taken to extreme measures to voice discontent. Of 952 protests in China in the fourth quarter of 2023, 17% were related to housing issues, according to Freedom House’s China Dissent Monitor project. Many of the demands centered on construction worker pay and delays in finishing projects. The country’s heavy surveillance and often severe punishment mean the risks are much higher for people taking to the streets than in the West.

Another way to measure the bleak market is to look at rental yield, or the annual return from renting out an investment property. The rate is only 1.5% in the biggest cities in China, about half that of Hong Kong and well below the almost 5% in New York, according to a report from ANZ Group Holdings Ltd. This low rate gives investors little motivation to buy a condo.

There are strands of optimism. Some local governments have relented on measures to cool speculation, scrapping buying curbs in some of the bigger cities including Hangzhou, the home base of Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. Another hope may lie with government-backed companies such as Poly Property Group Co., as the Communist Party asserts its dominance over all aspects of the economy. Nine of the top 10 land buyers in the first two months of this year were state-owned developers, with China Resources Land Ltd. being the biggest purchaser, according to a research note by Andrew Chan and Daniel Fan at Bloomberg Intelligence.

The Chinese government has identified two pillars of its renewed housing policy: building affordable homes and renovating run-down inner-city districts. The central bank is providing cheap funding for these efforts via the so-called pledged supplemental lending program, with about 3.4 trillion yuan available as of the end of January. The downward pressure on home prices may ease as early as next year if these renovation programs go well, according to UBS Group AG analyst John Lam, an early Wall Street bear on Evergrande who’s now one of the few analysts to have turned positive on Chinese real estate.

Shares of Chinese developers jumped sharply on May 16 on news that China is considering a plan for local governments to buy unsold homes. “Shifts in the growth model of the real estate sector can help facilitate its recovery and mitigate the severity of job losses,” says Maggie Hu, an assistant professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Yet “there’s potential for the situation to worsen in the short term.”

Chances of a rebound provide little solace for workers such as Li, who’s still hunting for a job. “In the good old days, success was a lot easier to achieve,” he says. “In wintertimes, one needs to work much harder and be mindful of every step and decision they make.” —With Emma Dong

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