China, Japan and South Korea are all facing a similar situation: a population increasingly turning away from dating, marriage and having children. I want to avoid the tendency that many have to homogenise this region, as if all of East Asia is the same, and instead examine these three nations independently of one another. That is not to say, however, that no commonality can be found here: all three nations have appeared, to some extent, to prioritise their economy to the detriment of their population. Meanwhile,  this is exacerbated by a global problem – the deeply rooted sexism to push women into situations in which they are expected to choose between their careers and the possibility of a family.

China’s case is a rather extreme one. With just under 34 million more men than women, it is no wonder why so many struggle to date and marry. Since the one child policy was introduced in 1979 as an attempt to tackle impending overpopulation problems, millions of female foetuses were aborted, as male children were more highly prized. Having a male child was traditionally seen to be an investment in one’s own future as, not only would he continue the family’s line, but his wife would be expected to take care of her in-laws as they grew into old age. As such, this immense gender disparity has come to exist, leaving many men (known as “bare-branches” for their failure to expand the family tree) to face the prospect of being single for their entire lives. This is only further cemented by the cultural expectation that women should practice hypergamy and “marry up”, seeking out wealthier, more established men; this practice, however, goes both ways, with men aiming to marry less established women, and thus older, wealthier, more educated women often find themselves rejected on the marriage market. Since China does not allow women to freeze their eggs, despite the fact that their most fertile period lines up with the most important periods for growth in their career, many women choose their career over the possibility of having children.

But what does this mean for the nation? Unsurprisingly, large swathes of the population facing the prospect of being alone for their entire lives has led to a mental health crisis, with high rates of depression to be found amongst single men. The gender imbalance has also led to a crisis of masculinity, as traditional manhood is represented by being a father and a provider but, when you’re single, there is no one to father nor provide for. Housing prices are rising drastically while China’s trade surplus is growing. This has occurred as many men, rather than spending their income on cheap consumer goods, are saving their money to purchase a house in order to attract a wife. As a result, household saving rates have skyrocketed since 2000, making the market increasingly more difficult for new owners to buy into.

Furthermore, costs more directly related to marriage have skyrocketed as, in China, it is traditional for the husband to pay the wife’s family a “bride price” (much like a dowry), however, because of the deficit of potential wives relative to their demand, bride prices have shot up significantly from a few hundred dollars around ten or twenty years ago, to nearly $30,000 today in some parts of China. Alongside the pre-existing expectations of financial stability, this further adds to the significant economic barrier on men wishing to enter the marriage market, and thus further perpetuates the intense work culture. Ironically, this all means that many parents who once opted to have sons over daughters to ensure their own future are now left to sacrifice their own limited income in an attempt to aid their sons.

A more serious consequence of the difficulties in finding a spouse is the rise in human trafficking. Tens of thousands of foreign women immigrate to China, seeking work and the prospect of marriage. Oftentimes these women, who usually come from less affluent nations such as Vietnam, arrive knowing little to no Mandarin, enticed by the promise of well-paying jobs (which often don’t actually exist), so they can send money back home. They are then bought by their husbands as part of a human-trafficking scheme, who pay the middle-man a fee (usually between $3000 and $1300) which the woman herself barely sees any part of. It is common for the woman to then go on to be treated very poorly by her husband and her in-laws, as she is an immigrant and is sometimes viewed more so as property than as family. 

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There continues to be a rapid decline in births in China, dropping by 2 million between 2018 and 2019, and the number of weddings has fallen for 5 years straight. Despite many companies trying to implement “dating leave” to encourage workers to find love, and the government itself attempts to paint leftover women as unfulfilled and alone, these trends are showing very little sign of slowing down. In fact, by 2050 it is estimated that there will be 150-190 men for every 100 women on China’s marriage market. The economic implications of this could become even more serious in the future as the population ages, and there are fewer people to replace those who are no longer in the workforce.

While the same gender disparity does not exist in Japan as in China, much of the same issues can be seen. This is in large part a result of the very intense work culture which leaves very little time for dating- let alone having children. As a result of this, many women see marriage as a career destroyer. 62% of Japanese women drop out of work once they have their first child, compared with only 17% of British women, who leave employment completely within the five years following childbirth. Traditionally, Japanese companies hire employees directly out of university and hold on to them until retirement, so it is incredibly difficult for women to get their feet back on the career ladder having left. In fact, of the 77% of university educated women who want to return to the workforce after having children, only 43% of them are able to do so. Seeing this, unsurprisingly, many Japanese women shy away from marriage, desiring to instead prioritize their careers. Additionally, the very intense work culture means that mothers often receive very little help or support from their husbands, with Japanese men contributing fewer hours of childcare and household chores than men in any of the world’s wealthiest nations. Instead, men are expected to work long hours in addition to working overtime, and then also drink after work with their clients and co-workers. Thus, the brunt of menial household labour falls to the wives, who are oftentimes highly educated, and hence desire more than what they are left with. In fact, on average, Japanese women do 40 hours of office work, followed by 30 hours of housework per week, compared with their husbands who only do 3 hours of housework. Unsurprisingly, this marital dissatisfaction translates to falling marriage rates, as many women aim to avoid the frustration that they see in their married contemporaries.

Japanese work culture appears to set “regular work” as the gold standard for an individual’s career path. While this concept is not too clearly defined, it generally means that they are expected to be recruited by a company straight out of university and then continue to work full-time for that same company up until retirement. Furthermore, the relationship culture of Japan, much like that of China, expects women to “marry up”, and so men who are unable to get more traditional, stable jobs, are often left single. Between 1995 and 2008, the number of regular workers fell by 3.8 million while the number of irregular workers increased by 7.6 million, a fact which may at first appear quite irrelevant to the falling marriage rate but, in reality, is partly fuelling it. 30% of irregular workers are married, compared to 56% of their counterparts in full time employment as the lack of job security is often viewed as a deal breaker in relationships. Additionally, the fall in regular work has made companies feel more confident in mistreating their employees through long hours and unpaid overtime, as they know that the employees do not want to risk re-entering the intensely competitive job market. As a result, many workers have less time to date or seek out relationships.

The result of all this is that fewer people are getting married, and even fewer are having children. Nearly 25% of women and 33% of men aged 35-39 have never been married, compared to 10% and 25% respectively two decades earlier. This, of course, comes with a drastic fall in birth rates, with a mere 864,000 children being born in 2019, 40% of the level in the mid-1970s. This drastically falling birth rate, combined with a rapidly ageing population, surely spells disaster for the future; particularly as Japan has invested less in pensions than countries in the West under the assumption that family will be available to care for their elders. While more than 70% of singles in their 40s reject marriage and say that they are happy ageing and dying alone, who will care for them in the future? As the working population falls, how will the economy sustain itself? This is not just an issue of “lonely hearts”- it is an economic issue as well as a social one as, in the future, the true impact of a large greying population weighing on the backs of their ever-shrinking youth will become incredibly apparent.

South Korea’s issues of dating and marriage appears to be incredibly interlinked with a culture that places a lot of pressure on the idea of reaching the top of one’s field. South Koreans work 15% longer than the OECD average. Many Korean women view career and family as mutually exclusive, as married women are less likely to find work and, while laws to prevent discrimination against pregnant women exist, they are rarely enforced. In fact, the expectation that women are solely responsible for the care of children and the elderly is embedded in the very foundations of Korean society as it is a concept upheld by Confucianism, a highly influential school of thought within this nation.  In this way, many women are actively avoiding marriage and children, and instead prioritising their careers, a priority which is also shared by men, with 70% of all Koreans saying that they were too busy with work to get married. Despite all these hours spent working, many Koreans also feel that they would be unable to afford children, not only because of the normal expenses of food and clothing, but also because of the fact that families are expected to spend a significant amount of money on additional academic support, with families in Seoul spending 16% of their income on private after-school tuition. This is no small sum, and this, combined with the lack of affordable care, means that many Koreans feel they are not in the financial position to have children.

Yet, to claim that the marriage rate is down solely because of the work culture would not be telling of the full story. Many Korean women are avoiding relationships out of fear of the growing trend of revenge porn and domestic violence, with 80% of Korean men in one survey admitting to being abusive towards romantic partners. Women face this risk knowing full well that, were they to marry, the brunt of household labour would fall on them: despite the fact that 86.1% of couples in dual-earner households agree housework should be equally shared, women still spend four times longer than men on household chores. It is the awareness of this need for equality- yet apparent lack of it in practice- which pushes women away from marriage.

Of course, this has all led to an incredible fall in the birth rate as Korea now has the lowest birth rate of any OECD nation, at a mere 0.98 while, in 1960, on average, women had 6 children each. Interestingly, it seems that the formula which had allowed the Korean economy to grow seventeen-fold towards the end of the 20th century– a formula which puts a huge emphasis on education and careers- will spell its own doom as the falling birth rates could cause the economy to shrink 5% by 2060. The upcoming generation, known as the “sampo generation” (meaning “three giving-up generation”), seems to have fully embraced this childless future, rejecting the three cornerstones of family: relationships, marriage, and children.

So what is the solution to all of this? Sadly it’s not all too clear. While offering more affordable childcare and providing more support in getting one’s foot on the property ladder will certainly help, the issue is far too complicated to be solved by a single policy solution. With regards to China; while, of course, having 34 million more men than women does pose a large hurdle with regards to relationships and dating, there are still 200 million single adults living there. This large number of singles cannot all be explained solely by this male surplus; instead, it likely finds its roots in all the other aforementioned problems. The economic barriers to relationships and establishing families exists in all three nations and so offering economic support in some manner to young singles could definitely help, but we must not forget that much of the issue is itself rooted in deeply entrenched societal beliefs and standards that are unlikely to change: be it the need for women to “marry up”, the contrast between regular and irregular work in Japan or the bride price in China, they all have an impact on dating and marriage today. What good would social and economic policies do if the necessary social change does not come with it? The South Korean government has been incredibly proactive in their attempt to increase the birth rate, yet many of their policies have seen little success: for example, in 2018, they increased paternity leave from one to two years while also guaranteeing new fathers 80% of their normal wages (capped at $1,338 per month) yet, despite this, only 18% of parents who took parental leave that year were men. Similarly, what good would plans to extend fertility treatments to single women and unmarried couples do in the nation with the lowest rate of out-of-wedlock births?

If all three of these nations want to see any improvement to their marriage rates, let alone their birth rates, they need to encourage a change in perspective regarding well-educated women, so women no longer feel they have to choose between a career and a family. They also need to change attitudes towards the work life balance, making it more difficult for companies to exploit workers, but also making it less normalised for individuals to spend all their time working, freeing up more time for socialising, dating and building families. While it may seem counterintuitive, encouraging people to work less and to have more free-time truly is investing in one’s country’s future; while the economy is valuable, we should not forget that the economy is built by people, for people. If your population cannot profit from their own economy, what’s the point?