Is China Drifting Toward a ‘Singles Society’?
In much of East Asia, the belief that everyone should get married, preferably at a young age, has deep cultural roots. According to those same norms, singledom is often associated with a lonely, empty, even selfish existence. Even today, the region’s young singles are frequently stereotyped as overly individualistic and unwilling to shoulder the responsibilities of family life.
These beliefs are not always borne out by the data. Although sometimes written off as an urban phenomenon afflicting the over-educated, a close analysis of recent census and survey data suggests this stereotype breaks down once you control for gender and region. Take singles aged 35 to 49, for example. Among males, the share of unmarried persons is highest among those with a primary school education or lower; for women, it peaks among those with graduate-level educations or higher.
This gender imbalance can lead to a “marriage squeeze,” in which some people are simply unable to find spouses. Among rural Chinese aged 20 to 49 with a primary school education or lower, there are a staggering 474.5 unmarried men for every 100 unmarried women. In contrast, among unmarried urbanites aged 35 to 49 with a bachelor’s degree or higher, there are just 97.7 men for every 100 women.
Not all singles are a product of circumstance, of course. Many choose the single lifestyle after carefully weighing their options. In the case of single women, in particular, explicit or implicit gender inequality in the family, workplace, and society may lead them to view early marriage as a source of risk, which in turn leads to them to either delay or eschew marriage altogether.
But staying single carries its own dangers. Young people with abundant personal resources can flourish outside the confines of marriage, becoming “one-person households.” Yet even singles with strong support systems face precarity. Whether in terms of real estate, durable consumer goods, or other facets of life, studies have found the scale effects of marriage reduce the cost of living and support couples as they make long-term plans and investments — advantages not enjoyed by their single counterparts.
Many Chinese singles are fully aware of this gap. In the 2017 edition of the Chinese General Social Survey, a well-regarded, nationally representative survey, when faced with two scenarios typical of individual vulnerability — an inability to complete household chores alone and being bedridden due to illness — 75% and 88% of singles said they would still be mostly reliant on their family for assistance, a situation that will become more untenable as their parents age and transition from caregivers to “careneeders.”
It is worth emphasizing here that a large number of young Chinese singles still hold an open attitude towards marriage. They are not too “individualistic” for marriage, as some critics might charge; rather, their individualism shows up as an emphasis on its emotional aspects. In contrast, much of Chinese society continues to view marriage through largely economic or even demographic lenses, with practical calculations and worries over future population growth dominating public discussions of the topic. Entrenched norms about the importance of buying a house and car before marriage or the need to find an economically well-matched spouse only complicate young people’s search for a suitable life partner. The competitiveness of the job market and expectation that young professionals commit to overtime also disperses the time and energy that they can spend building their private lives.
In his myth-busting study of American singles, “Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone,” sociologist Eric Klinenberg shows that staying single doesn’t imply selfishness, irresponsibility, or a lack of engagement in civic life. His positive description and interpretation of single life suggests that living alone may simply be more desirable for certain people and at certain points in our lives. Rather than panicking about unmarried, unstable youths, Klinenberg calls for a society-wide rethink of what this trend means for public life in the United States.
The Chinese title of Klinenberg’s book, “A Society of Singles,” gestures to Klinenberg’s argument even as it redirects the reader’s attention back to the question of marriage and whether China’s traditional family-based society is giving way to a “singles society.”
But a closer look at the above-mentioned data and social context suggests that, despite the rising number of single youths, marriage remains the most important life choice for the vast majority of Chinese, even if finding a partner isn’t always easy. Getting married is both a social ideal and the main pathway to a traditional lifestyle in China, and the hope of one day finding love and starting a family continues to provide sustenance to individuals, including singles.
In this regard, China is not quite the same as countries where an outright refusal to marry is prevalent. Instead, it more closely resembles Japan, where scholars such as James Raymo, Fumiya Uchikoshi, and Shohei Yoda have found that singles remain a minority, and staying single is often a product of circumstances, rather than individual choice — a phenomenon they call “‘drifting’ into singlehood.”
According to the most recent census, the number of unmarried persons in China between the ages of 20 and 49 reached 134 million in 2020. China has responded by spending heavily on addressing its population challenges, as well as on creating more equal workplaces and social environments. Reducing the insecurities faced by young people and promoting social mobility are important, but more attention should also be paid to how contemporary youths’ understanding of marriage has shifted in recent years.
Li Ting, a professor of demography at Renmin University of China, made an equal contribution to this article.
Translator: Matt Turner; portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao.
(Header image: IC)