It’s been a brutal three years for China’s young adults. Their unemployment is soaring amid a wave of corporate layoffs. Draconian coronavirus restrictions are over, but not the sense of uncertainty about the future they created.
For many people, the recent turmoil is another reason to delay major life decisions – contributing to a record-low marriage rate and complicating the government’s efforts to avert a demographic crisis.
Grace Zhang, a tech worker who has long been ambivalent about marriage, spent two months barricaded in Shanghai’s government blockade last year. Robbed of the ability to move freely, she spiraled from the loss of control. As she watched the lockdowns spread to other cities, her optimism faded.
When China reopened in December, Ms. Zhang, 31, left Shanghai to work remotely, traveling from city to city in the hope that a change of scenery would restore her positive outlook.
Now, as she sees layoffs mounting around her in a troubled economy, she questions whether her job is secure enough to support a future family. She has a boyfriend but no immediate plans to marry, despite frequent admonitions from her father that it’s time to settle down.
“Such instability in life will make people more and more afraid to make new life changes,” she said.
The number of marriages in China has fallen for nine consecutive years, halving in less than a decade. Last year, about 6.8 million couples registered to marry, the lowest since records began in 1986, down from 13.5 million in 2013, according to government data released last month.
Although the numbers have risen so far in 2023 compared to the previous year, more marriages are also ending. In the first quarter this year, 40,000 more couples got married compared to the same period the year before, while divorces rose by 127,000.
Surveys have shown that young people are discouraged by the burden of putting a child through China’s cutthroat education system. As women in cities reach new levels of financial independence and education, marriage is less of an economic necessity for them. And men say they can’t afford to get married, citing cultural pressure to own a home and a car before they can even start dating.
The instability of the last three years has compounded these pressures, reshaping the expectations of many young people about building a family. China has imposed an increasingly tight grip on every aspect of society under its leader, Xi Jinping – with effects that could weigh on the marriage rate.
“If young people are not sure about the future, it is very difficult for them to think about settling down and getting married,” said Xiujian Peng, a senior research fellow at Australia’s Victoria University.
In China, where it is extremely rare for an unmarried couple or an unmarried person to have children, the marriage decline is linked to the country’s declining birth rate. Last year, China’s population shrank for the first time since the early 1960s, when famine was widespread.
The ruling Communist Party has engaged in a propaganda campaign to encourage people to get married and have babies, even holding state-sponsored dating events. The government is testing programs in 20 cities to promote a “new era” of marriage. One principle of the new era is that husbands and wives should share child-rearing responsibilities – an acknowledgment that women in China traditionally bear an unequal burden. A local government in eastern China has started a matchmaking app.
But the anxieties that underpin why so many people say no to marriage are not easily addressed.
For Xu Bingqian, 23, a recent graduate, the pandemic upended her plans to study in Spain and apply to graduate schools there. One of her professors, from Cuba, could not return to China to teach due to travel restrictions. As lockdowns gripped Ms. Xu at the dormitory, arguments erupted with her roommates. They mourned their lost educational opportunities, she said, and had few outlets for their frustration.
Ms. Xu, who now works in a bookstore in the eastern city of Qingdao, said the disturbances prompted her to take a more “conservative” approach and avoid big changes, such as finding a boyfriend.
“I can’t be sure whether he will be good or bad,” said Mrs. Xu. “I don’t want this kind of uncertainty to enter my life.”
Last month, the topic of marriage was a hot topic online after a video went viral on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, which showed a man killing his wife by repeatedly running over her with his car after a domestic dispute. Many of these commentators warned women against marrying. A recent Weibo hashtag about rejecting marriage generated 92 million views, with commenters citing the lack of protections for women in China’s divorce and domestic violence laws.
The share of women aged 25 to 29 in urban China who have never been married rose to 40.6 percent in 2020 from 8.6 percent in 2000, according to an analysis by Wang Feng, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Irvine. .
Many men say they are delaying marriage because they feel economically insecure. Due to a cultural preference for boys during the government’s one-child policy, which ended in 2016, China has about 35 million more men than women, leading to a sense of economic competition for marriage.
Xu Xi, 30, left a job at a multinational tech company for a state-owned enterprise this year. He wanted more job security, even though he took a 50 percent pay cut and now earns about $28,000 a year.
After the change, he feels ready to propose to his girlfriend next year, but says they don’t plan to have children because the cost is too daunting. He said many people feel poorer despite China becoming more prosperous, a feeling that will inevitably affect workers’ attitudes towards marriage. Adjusted for per capita economic output, China is the second most expensive country in the world to raise a child, behind South Korea, according to Chinese demographers.
“At the moment, I’m still looking for stability and seeing what happens with the economy,” said Mr Xu, who lives in the southwestern city of Chengdu.
By 2020, Erin Wang, 35, was optimistic about living in China. Then she saw the government attack private companies, killing jobs in the process, and take a heavy-handed approach to the pandemic. She worried about the increasingly authoritarian environment.
“I felt I had no confidence to have a baby in China,” she said.
Recently, feeling exhausted from her financial consulting job, she resigned and moved from the city of Hangzhou to Shanghai to pursue a new career. She hopes Shanghai will have a more diverse dating pool than Hangzhou, where she said many men in her social circle just wanted an obedient wife who would sacrifice her career to bear children.
In April, she traveled across the United States, where she previously worked for four years, to see if she should move back. She is now staying in China but coming up with an exit plan, transferring some money to foreign banks and researching foreign visas.
“I actually want to get married,” she said, “but if no one’s right, it’s not like I’m going to die.”