Lizzy Ran is happy with her life. She’s 29, single, and earning a decent income as a doctor in central China’s Hubei Province. In her free time, she hangs out with friends, reads books, and travels.
But her mother is worried about her.
“She believes getting married and having babies are things that a person must do in their life,” Ran says. “I don’t think so. Marriage isn’t essential for me.”
For Ran, finding the right person would be ideal, but she’s not about to force the issue.
“If I’m not lucky enough to meet such a guy, it’s fine, and I will accept that,” she says. “I will definitely not force myself to find a man and marry him.”
Ran’s thinking is typical of many Chinese born after 1990. She is part of a generation that’s in no rush to tie the knot, in large part because of social and economic changes that have overturned tradition for China’s millennials.
The country’s marriage rate has been falling for the past six years, from 9.9 per 1,000 people in 2013 to 7.2 per 1,000 people in 2018, according to the National Bureau of Statistics. In total, 10.1 million couples registered their marriage last year, compared to 13.5 million in 2013.
“Marriage is a heavy burden,” one person wrote on Weibo, China’s Twitter, “and I don’t want to take it.”
“I’ve argued with my mother over this issue,” wrote another. “She criticized me for not being mature and insightful, and I told her there was a big generation gap between us.”
The traditional view of family in China is that children look after their parents in old age. Couples register their marriage because they plan to have children—or in some cases already have one—with the expectation that the children will grow up to take care of them.
But an expanded social safety net, brought on by decades of economic development, has reduced the need for young people to marry and start their own families.
Today, social and medical insurance cover most residents in both urban and rural areas, making marriage less of a necessity, says Gui Shixun, director of the Population Research Institute at East China Normal University in Shanghai.
“As China’s society and economy develop quickly, young people’s views on choosing a partner and marrying have changed,” he says. “In the past, people believed that a person was not filial to his parents if he did not have children. But people nowadays think it’s okay if they do not have a child in their life.”
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Today, roughly 70% of young people are willing to wait for the right person to come along, according to a survey by the Communist Youth League.
Of the 3,000 people who responded to that survey last year, 16% said they wouldn’t marry, and only 14% said they would be willing to compromise on life goals to find a partner.
Wang Jufen, a researcher at Fudan University’s School of Social Development and Public Policy, believes higher education levels and greater financial independence among women have also contributed to falling marriage rates.
“In many universities, we see more female undergraduates [than males],” Wang says. “There are also an increasing number of female candidates for master’s or doctoral degrees. So women do not need to depend on men economically, like previous generations who did so through marriage.”
Vincent Fan, a 30-year-old financial worker in Hainan Province, is in no rush to find someone despite pressure from his parents.
He broke up with his girlfriend after leaving Shenzhen in Guangdong Province six months ago. Getting married is not his top priority.
“I’d prefer to be unmarried over living with someone I am not completely satisfied with.”
“Marriage is not so important for me,” he says. “I’d prefer to be unmarried over living with someone I am not completely satisfied with.”
But in Shanghai, Xiao Lei and her long-term boyfriend are bowing to family pressure.
The couple has been living together for two years and plan to wed at the end of October after her father issued an ultimatum for her to marry before she turns 38 in November.
“It’s about my father saving face,” Xiao says. “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.
Lizzy Ran, the doctor from Hubei, says she hopes to find a partner someday but barely has time to look. After finishing work, she goes home and spends most of her time reading books, watching TV, and browsing on her phone.
“I often travel with my good friends,” she says. “They’re all young girls and single like me. Basically, I’m so busy in my spare time that I don’t have time to search for a man and get to know him.”
But even if she does marry, Ran, who has never been in a long-term relationship, says she’s not optimistic that it will last.
On a national scale, more couples are separating. The number of divorces in China rose from 1.3 million in 2003 to nearly 4.4 million in 2017, according to the Ministry of Civil Affairs.
A 2016 study by Peking University’s Institute of Social Science Survey in Beijing found that among people born after 1980, 13.5% would divorce within 15 years of marriage, three times the rate of their parents’ generation.
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Mu Guangzong, a demographer at Peking University, says a new generation of people are happy to stay single.
“Artificial intelligence, a thriving economy, a prosperous culture, and convenient social services have all contributed to support single people’s lives,” Mu says. “Marriage is not a necessity in one’s life any longer, and that means a ‘single society’ is coming.”
Mu says being single might allow people to fully enjoy their freedom, but there are downsides to the lack of connection.
“It’s hard to imagine a society based on units of individuals, rather than families, is warm and sustainable,” he says.
Adapted from an article first published in the South China Morning Post.