This blog has on many occasions discussed China’s impending population problems: its falling working age population; its gender imbalance; its ageing population; its replacement as the most populous nation in the world (for perhaps the first time in millennia) by India; its horrific abuses perpetrated under the one child policy. China is now a great power that will grow old before it grows rich and that has all sorts of implications for its status and its ability to project power internationally and the ruling Communist Party’s ability to keep its population happy and quiescent. (Have a search on the site for our China stories going back at least five years.)
Now another sign is coming out that China’s population is not going to rebound to normal levels of growth anytime soon through natural increase. For the second year running the absolute number of couples registering for marriage has declined, it now stands at 12 million. Of course, getting married isn’t the only way indication of the number of children a country will have: in the West we are reaching levels of nearly 50% of children being born out of wedlock in some countries. But it is at least a strong indication that not only are there fewer Chinese young adults in the prime marrying years of 20 to 35, but that of that group, fewer are interested in getting married and starting a family.
“But the marriage slump — caused in large part by China’s aging population and the legacy of its harsh one-child policy — has a silver lining. It also stems from the rise of an educated population of women. Specialists in economics, demography and sociology say some of those women are delaying marriage to build careers and establish financial footing, resulting in a more empowered female population that no longer views marriage as the only route to security.
‘Because they are highly educated, they hold well-paid jobs, they lose the financial incentive to get married,’ says Zhang Xiaobo, a professor of economics at Peking University’s National School of Development.”
The one child policy means that there are fewer people in the current generation than there were in the one before, and that there are more males than females (something we wrote about way back in our first ever post for this blog). Millions of Chinese men will never marry due to sex-selective abortion and infanticide and the resulting outnumbering of men over women. But the government, having in large part created this mess, is trying to clear it up by encouraging people to marry. It emphasises marriage in official media and entreats women not to wait for a mythical “Mr Right”. The government is worried that not only will there be fewer workers, taxpayers and consumers born, but also that single Chinese will spend less.
“On the economic front, the impact could be double-edged. Single people generally buy fewer houses, have fewer children and buy fewer toys and gadgets than married couples. That could complicate China’s efforts to turn its traditionally tightfisted population into American-style spenders, to offset its economy’s dependence on exports and big-ticket government projects.
It could also lead Chinese consumers to put more money away in the bank or under mattresses. Families of prospective grooms in China often save money for years to buy a home for a couple before they marry to give them financial stability. Families save more, to buy bigger homes, if brides are hard to find, said Mr. Zhang, the Peking University professor.”
On the other hand, young single earners will spend their money elsewhere and businesses are rushing to bring out cheaper jewellery, less expensive, smaller housing and smaller rice cookers.
The economic effects may be mitigated through diversified consumer spending, but a bigger problem is once again China’s ageing population: traditionally married couples care for their ageing parents. The current generation is worried about the coming crush of caring for their elderly parents:
“Wu Jingjing, 29, can see the burden that the aging population could be for her generation. ‘There’s a group of people who will feel very much crushed by being in the middle layer, being the pillar of a family while raising both the children and their parents,’ said Ms. Wu, who works for an internet company. ‘I think that sense of collapse will happen in 10 or 20 years.’”
Hmmm, the sense of collapse in 10 or 20 years? That is not very far away…