It has been a brutal three years for China’s young adults. Their unemployment rate 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 postpone major life decisions — contributing to a record-low marriage rate and complicating the government’s efforts to stave off a demographic crisis.
Grace Zhang, a tech worker who had long been ambivalent about marriage, spent two months barricaded in the government lockdown of Shanghai last year. Robbed of the ability to move freely, she spiraled over the 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 hopes that a change of scene would restore her positive outlook.
Now, as she sees rising layoffs around her in a troubled economy, she wonders if her job is secure enough to sustain a future family. She has a boyfriend but no immediate plans to marry, despite frequent admonishments from her father that it’s time to settle down.
“This kind of instability in life will make people more and more afraid of making new life changes,” she said.
The number of marriages in China declined for nine consecutive years, falling by half in less than a decade. Last year, about 6.8 million couples registered for marriage, 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 with the year before, more marriages are ending, too. In the first quarter of this year, 40,000 more couples married compared with the same period a year earlier, while divorces rose by 127,000.
Surveys have shown that young people are deterred by the toll of putting a child through China’s cutthroat education system. As women in cities achieve new levels of financial independence and education, marriage is less of an economic necessity to them. And men say they cannot afford to get married, citing cultural pressure to own a home and a car before they can even begin dating.
The instability of the last three years has compounded these pressures, reshaping many young people’s expectations about building a family. China has imposed an increasingly tight grip over every aspect of society under its leader, Xi Jinping — with effects that could weigh on the marriage rate.
“If young people are not confident about the future, it’s 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 a single person to have children, the marriage decline is tied to the country’s falling birthrate. Last year, China’s population shrank for the first time since the early 1960s, when there was a widespread famine.
The ruling Communist Party has engaged in a propaganda campaign to urge 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 tenet of the new era is that husbands and wives should share child-rearing responsibilities — an acknowledgment that women in China have traditionally carried an unequal burden. A local government in eastern China started a matchmaking app.
But the anxieties that underpin why so many people are saying no to marriage are not easy to address.
For Xu Bingqian, 23, a recent college graduate, the pandemic 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 because of travel restrictions. As lockdowns trapped Ms. Xu at the dorm, arguments with her roommates erupted. They were mourning their lost educational opportunities, she said, and had few outlets for their frustration.
Ms. Xu, who now works at a bookstore in the eastern city of Qingdao, said the disruptions have prompted her to take a more “conservative” approach and avoid big changes, like finding a boyfriend.
“I can’t be sure if he’ll be good or bad,” Ms. Xu said. “I don’t want this kind of uncertainty to enter my life.”
Last month, the subject of marriage was a hot topic online after the widespread circulation of a video on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, that showed a man killing his wife by repeatedly driving over her with his car after a domestic dispute. Many of those commenting warned women against getting married. 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 age 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. Because of a cultural preference for boys during the government’s one-child policy, which ended in 2016, China has around 35 million more men than women, fueling 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 makes about $28,000 a year.
After the switch, he feels ready to propose to his girlfriend next year, but says they do not plan to have children because the cost is too daunting. He said many people feel poorer despite China becoming more prosperous, a sentiment that will inevitably affect workers’ attitudes toward 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’s going on with the economy,” said Mr. Xu, who lives in the southwestern city of Chengdu.
Until 2020, Erin Wang, 35, was optimistic about living in China. Then, she saw the government crack down on private companies, killing jobs in the process, and take a heavy-handed approach to the pandemic. She grew concerned about the increasingly authoritarian environment.
“I felt like I had no confidence to have a baby in China,” she said.
Recently, feeling burned out from her financial consulting job, she quit and moved from the city of Hangzhou to Shanghai to look for 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 their career to bear children.
In April, she traveled throughout the United States, where she had previously worked for four years, to see if she should move back. She is staying in China for now but devising an exit plan, transferring some money to foreign banks and researching overseas visas.
“I actually want to get married,” she said, “but if there’s no one suitable, it’s not like I’ll die.”