Reading Leta Hong Fincher’s CNN piece on changes in women’s attitudes about marriage in China reminded me of a prediction that I have been making for the past two or three years to anyone who will listen:
Within a decade, marriage patterns in mainland China will resemble those everywhere else in East Asia, with high proportions of women marrying late or not at all. Similarly, high proportions of men, especially poorly educated ones with poor economic prospects, will be unable to marry. This is already happening in Beijing, Shanghai, and other prosperous cities. Based on what happened in Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan after 1990 or so, I am guessing the changes, when they occur, will be sudden and dramatic. These changes will be much larger and more important than any of the ones associated with imbalanced sex ratios at birth, and would occur even if the sex ratio at birth were normal. More speculatively, I expect that mainland China will continue to resemble other East Asian societies in terms of having very low rates of non-marital childbearing. As proportions married collapse, the fertility rate will fall even further.
When I look at what is happening in mainland China right now, and what has happened elsewhere in East Asia, this all seems obvious. All of the factors that seemed to be associated with rapid marriage change elsewhere in East Asia seem to be present in mainland China right now: dramatic and rapid economic and social change, rising levels of female education, changing patterns of inter-generational relations, and changing expectations about career and marriage on the part of both young men and women.
One piece of indirect evidence suggests that there is pent-up demand or at least curiosity about the possibilities associated with delaying marriage, at least for women: at least according to Joy Chen’s website, the Chinese version of her straightforwardly titled book Do Not Marry Before Age 30 seems to be selling well. I haven’t read the book and probably never will since I am not part of the target audience, but it is refreshing to see someone writing a book that is the exact opposite of the usual nonsense offering women advice on how to bag a man, on how to avoid spinsterhood, and so forth.
Nevertheless, many observers, Chinese and foreign, seem wedded in some vague way to a notion that ‘tradition’ will somehow prevent the same changes taking place in China that took place elsewhere in East Asia. ‘Tradition’ and ‘cultural values’ did not serve as a bulwark against marriage change elsewhere in East Asia in the last two decades, so I don’t understand why they would prevent change in China now. Indeed they have not done much to prevent changes in marriage patterns among young adults in China’s largest and most developed cities, notably Beijing and Shanghai, where the average age at marriage is already high, and the proportions of people marrying are falling. ‘Tradition’ and ‘culture’ may help us understand why specific phenomenon persist to the present, but they have a terrible track record of predictors of future behavior. Sometimes this assumption of continuity is explicit, but in many cases it is implicit, for example, in the assumptions about marriage preferences that demographers simulating the effects of sex ratio imbalances build into their projection models.
The best example of how useless tradition is as a predictor of future trends is probably the recent rise in divorce rates in China. Rates of divorce in China used to be very low. Most people, including myself, assumed that they would remain low, because of ‘culture’ or ‘tradition’ that encouraged unhappy couples to remain married. Yet when China changed divorce laws around a decade ago to make it easier to divorce, rates skyrocketed. Low divorce rates apparently had more to do with institutional and legal barriers than with any ‘culture’ or ‘tradition’ that discouraged divorce. Rapid increases in divorce rates elsewhere in East Asia over the last two decades were similarly unexpected.
Somewhat perplexing for me is the continuing concern on the part of pundits and academics about a topic that for me is a not much more than a side issue: the potential effects on marriage of imbalanced sex ratios at birth. This is not to dismiss concern about imbalanced sex ratios at birth. There are many important reasons to be concerned about imbalanced sex ratios at birth, not the least of which is what they reflect about gender attitudes. However, I think the effects of imbalanced on sex ratios on marriage patterns will turn out to be fairly small because the affected cohorts will be coming of age at a time when much more dramatic shifts in marriage patterns are occurring. No matter what the sex ratio of births is or was, the numbers of men and women not marrying is probably going to increase dramatically. While some of the men who do not marry might be unmarried because of the imbalanced sex ratio, many more will be unmarried because none of the single women are willing to marry them, or they themselves choose not to marry.
As to the implications of what I think will be a very rapid shift in marriage patterns in mainland China, I can only speculate. It certainly won’t be a disaster. Other places in East Asia seem to have experienced these rapid shifts in the last decade or two without collapsing. I would guess that twenty-somethings in China will spend more and more of their time working, spending time with friends, and pursuing individual interests, and less and less time meeting and assessing potential spouses. And I suspect that as elsewhere in East Asia, members of senior generations will finally realize the world has changed, and stop pressuring their adult children, nephews, and nieces to find a spouse and have children. As I noted earlier, in light of the very low levels of nonmarital childbearing in China, the most important effect of delayed or foregone marriage there may be further reductions in the birth rate.
I would certainly like to see commentators, journalists, pundits, academics, and policymakers acknowledge the possibility that marriage may change rapidly. At the very minimum, demographers should allow for a wider range of possibilities for marriage preferences when they run projections to examine possible impacts of imbalanced sex ratios. If we’re lucky, the degrading and artificial term ‘sheng nv’ will be banished from the language, and will no longer be used either by domestic commentators, or foreign journalists who uncritically accept the term as an organic one and reuse it, even though it was actually coined and put into widespread use as part of a systematic effort to belittle unmarried women. Best of all would be accommodation on the part of the government, commentators and senior generations to the changing reality, and abandonment of efforts to pressure young people, especially women, into marrying by a certain age.
Academics and policymakers need to engage in a thoughtful and open-minded assessment of why marriage is changing that goes beyond repeating tired and sometimes offensive platitudes, especially ones about young women having expectations that are too high, or young people in general being too selfish, irresponsible, and consumption-oriented. The former is especially unappealing because implicitly, it argues that women should be the ones who make sacrifices in order to marry, not men.
Serious consideration needs to be given to the fact that marriage may be unappealing to women because labor markets and household gender roles combine to make the prospect of being a working mother especially unappealing. In many China, as in many societies, women are responsible for many domestic duties including child care and elder care, even if they are also working. The financial burden associated with buying a home and paying for a child’s education, meanwhile, make staying at home unrealistic as an option. Given a choice between remaining a single and working, or being married and working and doing most of the domestic work, remaining single seems an eminently sensible option.