Marriage rates in China have sunk to an all-time low. Will the nation soon face a demographic crisis?

September 1, 2022, 5:58 PM UTC
A pre-wedding snapshot in Beijing, July 2022.
Kevin Frayer—Getty Images

Young people in China are increasingly choosing to stay single, intensifying government fears that the nation could soon face a severe demographic crisis. 

China’s new marriages last year plummeted to an all-time low, according to recent data from the country’s Ministry of Civil Affairs. 

In 2021, China registered 7.6 million new marriages—a 6.1% decline from 2020, and the lowest number recorded since Chinese authorities began publicly releasing figures in 1985. China’s crude marriage rate—the number of marriages per 1,000 people—also slumped to a record low of 5.4, a near-halving of its 2011 peak of 9.7. 

Chinese citizens are also delaying marriage. Around half of those married last year were age 30 and above. 

For decades, China has relied on its massive working-age population to fuel its outsize economic growth. Now, as young Chinese increasingly delay marriage, or reject marriage and having kids outright, Beijing is worried about the consequences for its already shrinking workforce amid its biggest economic slowdown in decades. 

Vows to remain unmarried and ‘DINK’ families 

Beijing’s social engineering policies, coupled with shifting societal trends, have contributed to China’s decline in marriages. 

China’s one-child policy—it was introduced in 1980 and ended only in 2016—suppressed population growth, meaning that there have been fewer young people getting married. 

The attitudes of Chinese millennials and Gen Z toward marriage and children have also changed. Those born after 1990 generally have more years of education—meaning extended years of schooling—than earlier generations, which has led to a delayed age of marriage, according to Chinese officials. This group has faced greater education and work pressures. China’s slowing economic engine alongside a growing number of educated young people has meant fewer jobs for college graduates. Home prices have also soared, contributing to wealth inequality. 

Some young Chinese have joined online communities where members are bound by one commitment: a vow to remain unmarried. Some Chinese females have become disillusioned with marriage, and are battling against the notion of “leftover women,” a common term in China used to describe women in their twenties and thirties who haven’t married. The number of Chinese people who live alone hit 92 million last year, exceeding Germany’s whole population.  

China has also seen a surge in ”DINK” families—young couples who take home a dual income, but have no kids, in part owing to rising home prices and cost of living, alongside changing values. 

The attitude of young Chinese “toward marriage poses a big threat to Beijing’s effort to alter the looming demographic crisis,” Ye Liu, a senior lecturer at King’s College London’s Lau China Institute, told The Guardian earlier this year. “Coupled with a higher level of education and economic betterment, this will become a bigger headache in years to come.”

Beijing is now desperate for young people to get married and have kids. “Marriage and reproduction are closely related. The decline in the marriage rate will affect the birth rate, which will affect economic and social developments,” Yang Zongtao, a civil affairs official, said in 2020. 

According to a United Nations report, by the 2030s, China could experience a massive population decline and see its working-age population fall two-thirds by the end of the century. China’s population growth rate fell to a 61-year low last year, with the number of births barely outpacing deaths. 

China has introduced new incentives to encourage young people to get married and have more children, like allowing families to have three children and offering subsidies for couples to have kids.

Sign up for the Fortune Features email list so you don’t miss our biggest features, exclusive interviews, and investigations.

Read More

ChinaIndiaSupply ChainsCybersecurityUkraine Invasion