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Falling marriage rate creates concern

By Wang Qingyun | China Daily | Updated: 2022-10-07 07:17
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Implications huge in aging society as families with children encouraged

It's not hard to find videos on China's social media showing young people being encouraged or even pressured by their parents to get married.

The exaggerated reactions of parents to their offspring's reluctance to go on blind dates or failure to bring home a girlfriend or boyfriend often provoke laughter.

But with the average age of the country's population on a continuing upward trend, some people aren't laughing when it comes to whether young adults are becoming more and more disinclined to tie the knot.

A report released by the Ministry of Civil Affairs in August marked a new low in enthusiasm for marriage. The report shows that the number of couples registered to get married in China last year, after eight years of steady decline, hit fewer than 8 million, also the lowest in 36 years.

Tang Mengjun, a researcher with China Population and Development Research Center, said the decline is a result of a combination of factors, including the reduction of the marriage-age population due to a drop in birth rates, a decrease in their willingness to get married and a tendency to postpone marriage.

Postponement shows up in the shift of the average age of first marriages. That age climbed to over 28 in 2020, according to the China Population Census Yearbook 2020, released this year.

The age was less than 24 in 1980, and generally has been on an upward curve since then, rising by about five years for both men and women, according to the yearbook.

Yang Jinrui, deputy director of the National Health Commission's population surveillance and family development department, said at a news conference in January that young people's views on marriage and childbirth have changed significantly.

Most of the people born in the 1990s and 2000s, who are arriving at the customary age to marry, have been living and working in urban areas, Yang said.

"They have spent more years getting an education, and are facing greater pressure and fiercer competition, so it's a very prominent phenomenon for them to postpone marriage and childbirth," he said.

Tradition, modernity meet

Tang, the researcher, said she found today's young people tend to have mixed feelings about marriage.

In China's family-oriented society, tradition regards marriage as an imperative that should be handled with great care, given that it involves not only two individuals, but their families, she said. It includes the distribution of their economic resources and a duty to produce future generations.

All this makes marriage "a particularly heavy" topic for young people, Tang added. At the same time, many of them, especially women, have come to realize that marriage is not a necessity of life.

Economic support and companionship used to be the key reasons for women to marry in the days when they were not as independent as now, she said.

"But now that society has become highly developed, they seek emotional sustenance, mutual respect and shared responsibility in marriage, creating higher standards for marriage," Tang said.

This is corroborated by a survey conducted late last year and published by the Journal of Chinese Women's Studies. In the survey, covering 9,775 college students in 22 provinces, more than 60 percent of those surveyed said they would get married at some point.

But views on marriage were divided by gender. While some 49 percent of women surveyed said they expect to get married, 43 percent said they "are not sure".

More than 70 percent of the men surveyed, meanwhile, showed a clearly positive attitude toward marriage.

Yet, men's views of marriage also are changing, according to Yang Juhua, a demographics professor at Minzu University of China in Beijing.

Marriage used to be a bigger priority for more men because traditionally, they relied on their wives to provide their meals and other domestic services.

Now, however, they may find marriage to be more challenging. Besides having a career, many men are now expected to share household and family burdens that formerly were almost totally on their wives' shoulders, Yang Juhua said.

Analysts also said that in today's world, there are technology and other changes in society that can fulfill needs once met by marriage.

Singles can turn to the internet, social media and other outlets for entertainment, or order food delivered when they get hungry.

While both Tang and Yang Juhua said they think most young people are open to the possibility of marriage — and want to walk down the aisle with the right one — those same people may be held back by different obstacles.

Some may be too busy with work to start a relationship, or they may find the cost of meeting someone, dating and getting married too high a price in time and money in their current circumstances, Tang said.

Yang Juhua said she has found through her studies that a prominent factor in men's hesitation to get married is having to face a heavy economic burden, especially in housing. Some women say a big reason they remain single is having a relatively small social circle, placing some limitations on the chances of meeting an appropriate husband in person.

The China census yearbook also challenges the traditional perception that people in rural areas marry much younger than their urban counterparts.

According to the yearbook, the average age for people in villages to enter their first marriage also exceeded 28 in 2020, more than five years older than in 1980.

Tang said one reason for the shift is the rapid urbanization of the country, meaning a lot of rural residents have moved and settled down in cities, even though their hukou, or household registration, remains in their rural hometowns.

"Rural people have been greatly influenced by urban life.... Even for those remaining in the countryside, their lifestyle has been shifted by telecommunications technologies and the internet," she said.

Another reason is that engagement gifts traditionally given to women are too expensive for men to afford in some regions, deterring them from finding a wife. A higher ratio of male to female births in rural areas also can be a factor, Tang said.

The postponement of marriage has been observed in many countries besides China, such as in Japan and the Republic of Korea. Most other member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development have seen an increase in age at first marriage.

The rise is mainly the result of modernization, experts said.

The development of a society and a rising level of education lead to more choices, enabling young people to find fulfillment through means other than marriage, such as developing their own careers, Tang said.

Choice or societal imperative?

A woman surnamed Zhao who works as a teacher at a university in Beijing said she plans to get married no later than 30, which she called "a key stage in life". The 26-year-old, who has a steady boyfriend, said she is not particularly keen on marriage, but she aspires to marry someone she likes and who is suitable for her.

"People of my parents' generation may have married after blind dates, with the goal of creating a family in mind," she said. "But now, most of my generation are ... in a relationship because they are attracted to each other. An individual's will is vital."

A woman surnamed Cui, a 43-year-old editor in Beijing, said she is "going with the flow" as to whether and when to get married.

She said that about a decade ago, her family members often urged her to find a husband. "Then I told my mother I wouldn't be happy for the rest of my life if I settled for someone who is not for me. And it was very open-minded of her to accept my choice."

Cui said she went on many blind dates when she was studying for her doctoral degree, but things didn't work out. Also, her heavy research workload left her little time to develop a relationship.

The woman said she is not looking for someone to depend on economically in marriage, but wants to find a person who resonates with her.

"I won't get married just for the sake of marriage. I live a busy and mentally rich life. I have my own research projects, an income to support myself and a stable job," she said, adding that "there is no time to feel lonely".

But she concedes she has worries.

"Sometimes I wonder what I should do if I don't have a husband or children by my side when I get older and sick someday. Nevertheless, I believe the society is progressing, and that there will be a better elder care system," the woman said.

Though marriage is becoming less of a priority for people, their attitude toward it has raised concerns among demographers.

China, like Japan and the ROK, has a relatively small number of births out of wedlock, and is less supportive of such births than Western countries, according to Yang Juhua.

"Marriage is still a prerequisite for childbirth in China," she said.

Tang agreed, adding that a drop in marriage aspirations and postponement of marriage are trends in China, and may have an impact on the country's population.

Yang Juhua, however, is cautious about ways the country might step in to increase the number of married couples.

"To a large extent, it's a rational choice individuals make in their best interests regarding whether and when to marry, whether to have kids, and how many kids they want to have," the professor said.

"If we want to intervene, we need a package of policies and coordination among different government departments," she added.

In June of last year, the Communist Party of China Central Committee and the State Council made a decision to optimize China's birth policies and promote long-term balanced development of the population, announcing measures the country would take to encourage all couples to have three children.

According to the decision, marriage is one of several aspects the country should take into consideration while working to address people's worries, unleash childbirth potential and promote the harmony and happiness of families.

It also encouraged people to get married and give birth at an appropriate age, and encouraged husbands and wives to share their parental responsibilities, while calling for doing away with the custom of requiring expensive engagement gifts. The reluctance of some women to have children may also contribute to people's lack of motivation to get married, Tang said.

The "motherhood penalty", referring to challenges women face in the workplace after having children, is common around the world and also in China, according to Tang. As a result, some women may choose their careers over marriage and childbirth.

Acknowledging the issue, the decision of the CPC Central Committee and the State Council emphasized that the country should strictly adhere to systems of maternity leave. It also encouraged regions to try out parental leave for both mothers and fathers and find a better way to share the costs borne by employers during employees' leave.

The subject is not new. Debates about Chinese people's marital status have been going on for years.

Data released in 2019 showed that the country's marriage rate had dropped for five consecutive years, prompting public discussions.

Yang Zongtao, a senior official at the Ministry of Civil Affairs' social affairs department, said in 2020 that a reduction in the number of newborns over time, which has led to fewer people of marriage age, is the major reason for the dropping rate. Changing views about marriage and a prolonged period of education also play a part.

Yang called for all sectors of society to pay attention to the issue of marriage and to create favorable conditions for it.

Zhao Jia contributed to this story.

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