'I don't': why China's millennials are saying no to marriage

Many millennials are happy to embrace a single life, meaning the place of marriage in Chinese society has changed.
PHOTO: AFP

Lizzy Ran is happy with her life. The 29-year-old unmarried doctor from central Hubei province earns a decent income and spends her free time with friends or surfing the internet at home.

But her mother is worried for her.

“My mother is quite anxious for me – she believes getting married and having babies are things that a person must do in their life,” Ran said. “I don’t think so – marriage isn’t essential for me.”

Ran said she believed marriage was determined by fate and she was not about to force the issue.

“If I am lucky and I find my Mr Right, that is good. But if I’m not lucky enough to meet such a guy, it’s fine, and I will accept that,” she said. “I will definitely not force myself to find a man and marry him.”

Ran’s thinking is typical among Chinese born after 1990. She is part of a generation who are in no rush to tie the knot in large part as a result of huge social and economic changes that have overturned tradition for China’s millennials. Researchers say the effects of this emerging “single society” have implications not only for the individual but the country as a whole.

The shift in thinking is apparent on social media. The hashtag “people born after 1990 do not want to marry” seen on China’s Twitter-like Weibo platform, attracted thousands of comments over the summer.

“Marriage is a heavy burden, and I don’t want to take it. Maybe I am such an irresponsible person,” one Weibo user wrote.

Another said: “I argued with my mother over this marriage issue. She criticised me for being not mature and not insightful of life, and I told her there was a big generation gap between us.”

Those changes are also reflected in a steadily falling marriage rate and a decline in the absolute number of people getting married.

According to the National Bureau of Statistics, the country’s marriage rate fell from 9.9 per 1,000 people in 2013 to 7.2 per 1,000 people in 2018. In all, 13.47 million couples registered marriages in 2013 compared with 10.11 million last year.

Wang Jufen, a researcher specialising in women’s development at Fudan University’s school of social development and public policy in Shanghai, said the falling marriage rates indicated that Chinese women were better educated and as result more financially independent.

“In many universities, we see more female undergraduate students [than males]. There are also an increasing number of female candidates for master’s or doctoral degrees,” Wang said.

“So women do not need to depend on men economically, like previous generations who did so through marriage.”

But Wang also said that one lingering tradition explained why many white-collar female workers in big cities remained unmarried – the continued desire among women for better educated or wealthier partners and a lack of interest in “looking downward” to find a boyfriend.

An expanded social safety net was also reducing the need for young people to marry and start their own families.

Gui Shixun, director of the Population Research Institute at East China Normal University, said that in the past couples started a family so they had children to look after them in their old age and as part of their responsibility to carry on the family line.

Couples would register their marriage because they planned to have a child, or in many cases, when a child was conceived.

Today, social and medical insurance in urban and rural China covered most residents, so marriage was less of a necessity, Gui said.

"As China’s society and economy develop quickly, young people’s views on choosing a partner and marrying have changed,” he said.

“In the past, people believed a person was not filial to his parents if he did not have children. But people nowadays think it’s OK if they do not have a child in their life.”

Today, roughly 70 per cent of young people are willing to wait for the right person to come along, according to a survey by the Communist Youth League’s Central Secretary Department.

Of the 3,000 people who responded to the survey last year, about 16 per cent said they wouldn’t marry, news outlet People.cn reported. Only the remaining 14 per cent said they would be willing to compromise on life goals to find a partner.

Vincent Fan, a 30-year-old financial worker from Haikou in southern Hainan province, is in no rush to find someone despite pressure from his parents. He broke up with his girlfriend after leaving Shenzhen six months ago, and getting married is not his top priority.

“Marriage is not so important for me. I prefer not to be married instead of living with someone I am not completely satisfied with,” Fan said.

But in Shanghai, Xiao Lei and her long-term boyfriend are bowing to family pressure. The couple, who have lived together for two years, plan to marry at the end of October after her father issued an ultimatum that she tie the knot before she turns 38 in November.

“It’s about my father saving face,” Xiao said. “He said he can accept that his daughter is married at the age of 37, but he will lose face if I marry at 38 or later.

“So, he told my boyfriend to marry me before I turn 38 or end our relationship.”

To placate Xiao’s father, her 43-year-old boyfriend, agreed.

China abandoned its decades-long one-child policy in 2016. PHOTO: AFP

Ran, the doctor from Hubei, said she hoped to find a partner but barely had the time to look.

“After work, I read my books on my major or, most of the time, I watch TV series or read novels on the internet,” she said.

“I often travel with my good friends – they are all young girls and single like me. In a word, I am so busy in my spare time that I don’t have time to search for a man and get to know him.”

But Ran, who has never been in a long-term relationship, said she was not optimistic about her chances of a successful marriage because of the unhappiness she saw in couples around her.

On a national scale, more of those unhappy couples are prepared to divorce. The number of divorces in China rose from 1.33 million in 2003 to 4.37 million in 2017, according to the Ministry of Civil Affairs.

Peking University’s Institute of Social Science Survey found in 2016 that for people born after 1980, 13.5 per cent of them would divorce within 15 years of their marriage, three times of the rate of their parents’ generation, news website Thepaper.cn reported.

Gui, the population researcher, said the low marriage rate would not help raise the low birth rate, accelerating China’s ageing society and putting further pressure on the ever-shrinking labour pool.

China abandoned the decades-old one-child policy in 2016 and is considering lowering the marriage age for men and women to raise the fertility rate.

But Mu Guangzong, a demographer from Peking University, said a new generation of people were happy to stay single.

“Artificial intelligence, a thriving economy, prosperous culture and convenient social services have all contributed to support single people’s single life,” Mu said. “Marriage is not a necessity in one’s life any longer and it means a ‘single society’ is coming.”

Mu said being single allowed people to fully enjoy their freedom, but there were downsides such as a lack of connections.

“It’s hard to imagine that a society based on units of individuals, rather than families, is warm and sustainable,” he said.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post

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