It’s been a tough three years for the youth of China. Their unemployment rate is rising amid a wave of layoffs. The strict coronavirus restrictions are gone, but not the sense of uncertainty about the future they created.
For many people, the recent unrest is yet another reason to postpone major life decisions — contributing to a record low marriage rate and complicating government efforts to stave off a demographic crisis.
Grace Chang, a tech worker who has long been ambivalent about marriage, spent two months holed up in the government lockdown of Shanghai last year. It denied her the ability to move freely, escalated by a loss of control. As she saw the lockdowns spread to other cities, her sense of 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 increasing layoffs around her in a turbulent economy, she wonders if her job is secure enough to support a family in the future. She has a boyfriend but no immediate plans to marry, despite repeated warnings from her father that it is time to settle down.
“This kind of instability in life will make people more and more afraid of making new changes in life,” she said.
The number of marriages in China has fallen for nine consecutive years, dropping by half in less than a decade. Last year, about 6.8 million couples were 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 are up so far in 2023 compared to the previous year, more marriages are ending as well. In the First Quarter This year, 40,000 married couples got married compared to the same period last year, while the number of divorces increased by 127,000.
Surveys have shown that young people are deterred by the toll of placing a child in China’s harsh education system. As urban women achieve new levels of financial independence and education, marriage is not an economic necessity for them. And the men say they can’t get married, citing cultural pressures to own a house and a car before they can even start dating.
The instability of the past three years has exacerbated these stresses, and has reshaped many young people’s expectations about starting a family. China has imposed an increasingly tight grip on every aspect of society under its leader, Xi Jinping – with effects that could affect the marriage rate.
“If young people are not confident about the future, it is difficult for them to think about settling down and getting married,” said Xiujian Peng, a senior researcher at the Australian University of Victoria.
In China, where it is extremely rare for unmarried or single people to have children, the decline in marriage is linked to the country’s declining birth rate. Last year, China’s population shrank for the first time since the early 1960s, when there was widespread famine.
The ruling Communist Party has engaged in a propaganda campaign to urge people to marry and have children, even holding state-sponsored dating events. The government is testing programs in 20 cities to promote a “new era” of marriage. One of the New Age tenets 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 fears that underlie many people’s rejection of marriage are not easy to address.
For Xu Bingqian, 23, who recently graduated from college, the pandemic has upended her plans to study in Spain and apply to graduate schools there. One of her professors, from Cuba, was unable to return to China to teach due to travel restrictions. When lockdowns corner Mrs. Shaw in the dorm, arguments break out with her roommates. They were mourning their lost educational opportunities, she said, and had few outlets for their frustrations.
Ms. Xu, who now works in a bookstore in the eastern city of Qingdao, said the upheaval led her to take a more “conservative” approach and avoid big changes, such as finding a boyfriend.
“I can’t be sure if it will be good or bad,” said Ms. Xu. “I don’t want this kind of uncertainty to enter my life.”
Last month, the topic of marriage was a hot topic on the Internet after a video went viral on Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter, that showed a man killing his wife by repeatedly driving his car after a domestic dispute. Many of those who hung warned women against marriage. A Weibo hashtag about refusing to marry generated 92 million views, with commenters pointing out the lack of protections for women in China’s divorce and domestic violence laws.
The percentage of women ages 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 putting off marriage because they feel economically insecure. Because of the cultural preference for boys during the government’s one-child policy, which ended in 2016, China has about 35 million more men than women, fueling a sense of economic competition for marriage.
Xu Xi, 30, left a job at a multinational technology company for a state-owned company this year. He wanted more job security, even though he took a 50 percent cut from his salary and now makes about $28,000 a year.
After switching, he feels ready to propose to his girlfriend next year, but says they don’t plan on having kids because the cost is too high. He said that many people feel poor despite China’s prosperity, a feeling that will inevitably affect workers’ attitudes toward marriage. After adjusting for economic output per capita, China is the second most expensive country in the world to raise a child, after South Korea, according to Chinese demographic experts.
“For now, I’m still looking for stability and seeing what happens in the economy,” said Mr. Xu, who lives in the southwestern city of Chengdu.
Until 2020, Irene Wang, 35, was optimistic about living in China. Then, it saw the government crack down on private companies, killing jobs in the process, and taking a heavy-handed approach to the pandemic. She became concerned about the increasingly authoritarian environment.
“I felt like I didn’t trust having a baby in China,” she said.
Recently, feeling overwhelmed by her work in financial advisory, she quit her job and moved from Hangzhou to Shanghai to look for a new job. She hopes Shanghai has a more diverse dating pool than Hangzhou, as she said many men in her social circle just want a dutiful wife who would sacrifice her career to have children.
In April, she traveled around the United States, where she previously worked for four years, to see if she should return. She is staying in China at the moment but is making an exit plan, transferring some money to foreign banks and looking for overseas visas.
“I really want to get married,” she said, “but if there is no one to match me, I will not die.”