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Couples put marriage on the back burner

By ZHOU WENTING in Shanghai | CHINA DAILY | Updated: 2023-03-30 06:49
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Financial pressures deter those in big cities from starting a family

Zhang Jingjing, 33, has been in a relationship for three and a half years, but while spending a lot of time with her boyfriend, she feels no obligation to marry him.

"It's more like an agreement between us to continue the relationship, rather than taking it to the next stage," said Zhang, who comes from Beijing and uses an alias.

The couple met after she relocated to Shanghai for work in 2019.

Although Zhang draws the line at marrying her partner, she said he is gentle, easygoing and kind. He was born in Taiwan and raised in the United States, so if the couple did decide to marry, they would need to decide where to settle.

"Many women feel the pressure to be married when they reach the age of 30 or so, but not me. I no longer care about how others view me, which has lifted a great weight off my mind," said Zhang, who works for a multinational company.

Like Zhang and her boyfriend, who is 37, many members of the younger generation living and working in big cities no longer feel that marriage is essential.

In February, a survey of some 5,000 single people in the 20 to 40 age group living in Shanghai found that more than 50 percent of them were in no rush to get married. The survey was carried out by the Shanghai Committee of the Chinese Communist Youth League.

Data from provincial civil affairs departments show that people in many regions are postponing marriage, and the average age for a first marriage in economically advanced areas such as the Yangtze River Delta Region is now generally older than 30.

The number of marriage registrations in Jiangsu province fell by 11.7 percent last year, the fifth successive annual decline. In Shanghai, the average age for marriage was 30.9 years last year, compared with 30.5 the previous year.

The survey also found that two-thirds of unmarried people were interested in starting a relationship, and that having a partner, but saying "no" to marriage may become commonplace for couples in big cities.

Zhang said she is happy with the relationship she has with her boyfriend. They used to work at the same company in Beijing, and a considerable amount of their current work content is similar, so they have much to share with each other.

"He is a good partner, and I feel comfortable and relaxed when I am with him, but if we ever start talking about marriage, I know things will become much more complicated," she said.

Discussion of marriage would include whether the couple should start a family, said Zhang, who accepts the idea of being a mother, but doesn't think a child is a necessity in life.

She is also worried about the fierce competition parents face in finding a good school for their children and sending them to extracurricular classes. Zhang said if she had a child, she would consider moving to Taiwan for the island's educational resources. However, her boyfriend can earn more in Shanghai than in Taiwan.

Moreover, Zhang is reluctant to marry, as she fears she would not get along with her boyfriend's parents.

"I don't have much interest in his parents, and I believe we can be best to continue our relationship if it involves as few people as possible," she said.

Relocating to Shanghai made Zhang more determined to enjoy life and not worry about the views of others. "Living in a new environment without family gives me more time to think and make decisions independently," she said.

She also feels that people in Shanghai have a strong sense of personal space, and try to avoid invading the privacy of others.

"When I worked in Beijing, colleagues often recommended single men to me after learning that I didn't have a boyfriend. However, in Shanghai, people seldom ask questions about coworkers' private lives. There is a greater tolerance here toward different lifestyles," she said.

The attitude of Zhang's parents has changed during the past two years. They used to seize every chance they could to urge her to get married, but they no longer do so, as some of their friends' children have ended their marriages after several years. These separated couples now lead difficult lives as juggling work and taking care of their children.

Least suitable

Liang Yong'an, 68, professor of literature at Fudan University in Shanghai, said those born in the late 1990s or early 21st century are possibly the least suitable for marriage in Chinese history.

He said that having children to continue the family line used to be all-important in Chinese society. People became accustomed to living with large families, where they were immersed in the collective values of their parents and even grandparents.

Now, values have become diverse, and intimate relationships adopt different forms and don't necessarily lead to marriage, Liang said.

"Moreover, many members of the younger generation tend to be self-centered, as they grew up in single-child families ... but they may lack a common awareness of one another. This is a generation that best fits an independent lifestyle."

Yu Jia, a researcher at Peking University's Center for Social Research, said: "Being more self-centered doesn't necessarily mean that someone is more selfish. We should understand that young people today prioritize fulfilling their personal values, rather than being bound by traditional concepts and collective awareness."

Tian Zhu, 35, a media worker in Shanghai, started a relationship with her fifth boyfriend six months ago, but she recently realized that he is not "Mr Right".

"He is not the one who loves me the most, nor the one I love most, but he can be my partner for now, as it feels good to have a companion," Tian said.

Despite getting along with her boyfriend in the time they have been together, Tian feels that marrying him is out of the question, as she is unhappy with some of his habits. He doesn't want to start a family, while she is eager to become a mother.

Results of a survey released by the dating/matchmaking website in February showed that people with more experience of relationships are less likely to marry.

Liang said the diverse choices that people have today are evidence of the progress made by an advanced society.

"Different choices reflect people's independent awareness of living in and understanding of their existence in the world," Liang said.

"Instead of just finding a partner for life and believing that affection for another person can be cultivated after spending time together, which some people did in the past, younger people now focus more on pursuing their heartfelt aspirations," he said.

The high cost of marrying and starting a family is another factor deterring those living and working in big cities from marriage.

Tian's boyfriend said the heavy financial burden of raising a child is the main reason he abandoned plans to start a family.

"I know that my quality of life will be different if I have to raise a child, but I don't want that much pressure," said the man, surnamed Zhu, who earns about 10,000 yuan ($1,446) a month from his steady job at a State-owned enterprise in Shanghai.

A post widely circulated online states that only one in every 400 men in Shanghai meets the requirements for an ideal partner, which typically include appearance, height, income, permanent residency, and an apartment in the city.

Yu, from Peking University, said: "In a relationship, the two sides have only to consider their feelings for each other. But for marriage, affection and material conditions need to be taken into account."

Grandparents' role

The arrival of a baby often results in a relationship becoming a marriage for many. However, everyday pressures, including financial considerations, mean some couples are reluctant to start a family.

Research by Huazhong University of Science and Technology's School of Sociology found that a couple's finances fall by 5.6 percent after having a baby, and if they have a second child, their finances drop by a further 7.1 percent.

Grandparents are key to helping raise children. In 2019, a survey in Jiangsu province found that paternal and maternal grandparents in more than 90 percent of families with two children helped take care of the offspring.

Women's views toward motherhood are also changing. In 2021, a survey carried out by the China Population and Development Research Center found that about one-third of Chinese women who are 35 or younger no longer believe that having a child makes life complete.

Zuo Yi, 36, a Shanghai resident who married four years ago, said women should be encouraged to pursue better lives for themselves, rather than meet the expectations of others, especially in starting a family.

"The reason older women are often less popular in the dating market is that those in their 30s are generally less fertile than women in their 20s," Zuo said.

"I totally support women who want to become mothers, and they have a brave decision to make, but it's important for every individual to make their own choices."

After seeing reluctance among some of their friends' husbands to raise children, some women say they are not interested in starting a family themselves.

The nation's fertility rate is falling, and the average family size is shrinking. Data from the China Family Planning Association show there were 2.62 people per family in China in 2020, a fall of 0.48 from 2010.

Research by Beijing Normal University's School of Social Development and Public Policy found that cohabitation before marriage often results in couples deciding to delay starting a family after they wed.

The research results, published in November, also found the premarital cohabitation rate in China surged from 4 percent in the 1980s to 40 percent in the 2010s.

Experts believe that cohabitation before marriage provides an opportunity for couples to bond, making it less imperative to start a family.





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