As China becomes richer and more powerful under President Xi Jinping’s first five-year term, the country is grappling with a profound shift: marriage rates are going down while divorces are rising sharply. The trend, already prevalent in developed economies, has much more serious implications for China: It badly needs couples to give birth to more babies to ease a rapidly aging population and drive up family-related purchases, as Beijing tries to sustain growth by shoring up consumption.
The fall in marriage, in part stemming from more than three decades of the one-child birth control policy, is largely driven by a mindset shift on Chinese women’s part. As the country’s rapid development translates into more and more opportunities, women no longer view marriage as a path to security. They are delaying it for education and career, a choice that was frowned upon in as early as 2007, when unmarried women over 27 were derisively called shengnu, or leftover women.
“Chinese society is definitely getting more tolerant towards different ways of living,” said Yuan Xin, a professor of population studies in Nankai University in Tianjin. “More and more people choose to not get married, but this doesn’t mean they don’t have partners.”
Last year, new marriages fell by 6.7% to 11.4 million, marking the third consecutive year of decline since 2013, according to government data. Meanwhile, divorce saw consecutive increases since 2012, climbing a further 8% to 416 million in 2016.
Chinese men are feeling the impact more acutely. The one-child policy, introduced in 1979 when Beijing argued having too many mouths to feed would hold back growth, has led the country to have big gender gaps, as parents often preferred male babies. This means that by 2020, there will be 30 million unmarried men in China. And in 2055, about 15% of men in China won’t be married when they are 50.
Further complicating their marriage prospects is the long-held tradition that a man must be able to provide a house and a car before tying the knot – no easy task considering China’s skyrocketing housing prices. The financial burden means men aren’t marrying until they save enough, giving rise to a problem known as shengnan, or leftover men, according to Yu Jia, an assistant professor at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
“Whomever I marry must make more money than me, because I don’t want my husband to be a drag on my life,” said Allen Yang, a 27-year-old woman working for a global law firm in Beijing. “I don’t mind staying single if I can’t find a suitable partner.”
All these make it hard for China to defuse its demographic time bomb: By 2050, one in three Chinese is projected to be older than 60, pressuring the already overburdened social welfare system and dragging down growth. Unlike in the U.S., where 40% of children are born out of the wedlock, marriage is considered a must for people to have children in the country, which largely views birth outside marriage a disgrace.
On the economic front, the falling marriage rate adds to spending uncertainties, said Nankai University’s Yuan. Singles, arguably, spend less than married households on appliances, homes and family-related services, prompting businesses to market cheaper and mini-sized products such as refrigerators and rice cookers, as well as building smaller apartments.
“All of these enable people to live a comfortable life without getting married,” said Alina Ma, senior lifestyle analyst at consultancy Mintel. “It means they are staying single for longer periods of time.”
Beijing, in the meantime, is trying to reinforce traditional family values. Last year, President Xi honored three hundred model families in Beijing, calling for building “socialist family values.” And in a bid to protect family stability, some local courts in Shanghai, Guangzhou and Sichuan are asking divorcing couples to undergo a three to six-month cooling period, reported the Beijing Youth Daily.
But no matter how hard the government tries, the falling marriage rate is unlikely to be reversed, as the mindset shift of women continues.
“Marriage is more about companionship now,” said Yu the assistant professor. “Women can get that by choosing cohabiting as well.”
According to Yu, a better solution to China’s aging and growth problem is providing more child caring benefits to those who still marry, such as birth subsidies or building more affordable child caring facilities. But even so, China will eventually follow Japan and South Korea in not wanting more children.
“Once birth rate is down, it can hardly go up,” she said. “In East Asia, couples want fewer and fewer children because they’d rather spend everything on one to two offspring, so they can enjoy more resources and have a better future. And in China, it is pretty much the same.”