Career people in their 20s and 30s in Hong Kong are facing increasing stress and loneliness as they struggle to advance during the economic slump - in many cases without a husband or wife to support them.
According to Bureau of Census and Statistics figures, the number of people who have never married increased by nearly 25 per cent in 10 years, from 1.4 million people in 1991 to 1.78 million in 2001.
Government figures also show the medium age for first marriages has fallen back by four years over the same period - from 27 for men and 23.9 for women in 1981 to 31.1 for men and 28.1 for women.
Chan Lai-wan, social work and social administration professor from the University of Hong Kong, said there was a strong trend in Hong Kong for people to marry late or remain single. She said one factor was that more people were going on to higher education and delaying marriage. She added that Hong Kong women who benefited from higher education and financial independence chose to remain single as they were reluctant to marry people with lower education standards and earning power.
But sociology professor Ting Kwok-fai from Chinese University said Hong Kong Chinese, still bound by tradition, regard marriage and having children as a must in their life.
'People start to face social pressure from families and friends when they still remain single in their late 20s and early 30s. Families and friends urge them to get married - this can create frustration,' Professor Ting said.
'The pressure from families would gradually fade when people enter into their late 30s as their friends and families start to understand it is no use pushing them. However, the single people tend to worry they would have to face a lonely life without families or children when they grow old - that also creates frustration,' he added.
Professor Ting also pointed out that, besides personal decisions, market uncertainties also forced people to remain single.
'In the past, people who graduated from university or worked in the government or big corporations were very certain about their career path. So they could have a marriage or family plan,' the sociologist said. 'However, people nowadays are so uncertain about their own financial condition that they become reluctant to commit themselves to a family responsibility.'
Social worker Kristine Yuen Suk-ling, a supervisor of the Christian Family Service, said even for those who still had jobs, the long working hours could seriously undermine a relationship.
'Even some people who are unlucky enough to stay in their jobs find they are forced to work a lot of overtime, depriving them of quality time spent with their girlfriends or boyfriends,' Ms Yuen said.
Chinese University psychiatry professor Lee Sing said young career people were increasingly worried about their career amid the high unemployment rate and weak economy. 'Career usually tops the priority list for people in their 20s and 30s as they are so eager to build their career. However, market uncertainties have created enormous stress on them,' Professor Lee said.
The latest government figures show the unemployment rate last month rose to 7.4 per cent - its highest level since September.
The psychiatry professor warned that younger people at work were vulnerable to developing general anxiety disorders when they could not handle the stress.
'General anxiety disorder can seriously devastate a person's daily life, as people would suffer extreme anxiety. Patients range from people from all walks of life including accountants, IT technicians and firefighters.
'I am really worried the increasing work and financial stress in society will bring more new cases,' Professor Lee said.
He said patients with the disorder tended to over-worry about all aspects of their life, adding that 50 per cent of these cases develop depression if they failed to receive early treatment.