Why China’s single population boom is no cause for alarm
- The news that China’s single population has reached 240 million has sparked alarm in some quarters. However, concerns over the threat to individual well-being and social stability posed by the growing number of single households are overblown
Recently, the Ministry of Civil Affairs released data showing that China’s single population has reached 240 million. There are 77 million single households, expected to rise to 92 million next year. Other reports suggest the number of single households may exceed 100 million. China now has the largest single population in the world.
In the wake of this data, I was not surprised, but nevertheless amused, to read a bunch of articles with alarming headlines: “Is being single a private matter or a social issue?” “The real problem of too many singles must be solved without delay”.
In such articles, dire concerns are raised about the singles themselves, as well as society as a whole. It is feared that such a large number of single people may lead to mental health problems, a boom in pornography and prostitution, and diminished stability. One article even goes as far as to say: “Those don’t extricate themselves from singledom are being irresponsible to themselves, to their families, to society and to the nation.”
The trend definitely has serious implications for health care, housing, population growth and consumption. Already, the so-called “singles economy” has been growing, generating products such as a rice-cooker for one person.
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Various studies suggest that a lack of financial resources, high standards, a limited social circle and, importantly, changing attitudes towards marriage and family have led to the rise in people living alone.
Once again, women are the trendsetters. A 2017 survey of single professionals jointly conducted by Zhenai and the Chinese version of LinkedIn showed that women were less anxious about finding love than men. Among those interviewed, 55 per cent of men were actively looking for a partner while only 37 per cent of women were doing the same.
My friend Shine Yin, a 41 year-old successful manager at a multinational company in Beijing, has been living on her own for around 15 years. A very attractive woman, she has had romantic relationships with several men, but none of them have tempted her into giving up her freedom. “I don’t shut my door,” she says. “If marriage doesn’t materialise, then that’s okay.” She meets up with girlfriends over the weekend and enjoys holidays abroad.
Traditionally, Chinese regarded getting married and having children as filial duties. Singles have a rather negative image in Chinese society. Bachelors are referred to as “bare branches”, while “leftover women” is a derogatory term for single women over 27. These days, some singles, perhaps out of self-pity, call themselves “single dogs”.
I would never associate women like Shine with the term “single dogs”.
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Do singles do themselves and society a disservice?
Not really, in my view. Sure, family support and emotional connection are vital to one’s physical and mental health. But living alone doesn’t equal being lonely or a total lack of a sexual or emotional life. It is extremely unlikely that the single tidal wave will undermine stability or result in an increase of vice.
Rather, it is a global trend that accompanies development – the better developed a country is, the higher number of singles it usually has. Living alone first gained traction in early industrialised countries and accelerated in the 1950s. Currently, only around 17 per cent of Chinese adults live alone, compared to 42 per cent in the United States. The percentage in Sweden and Norway is even higher – over 50 per cent – yet instability or crime is not a real problem there.
Work units should continue to organise dancing parties. Meanwhile, the community and our authorities should accept that marriage should be a choice instead of an obligation.
Lijia Zhang is a rocket-factory worker turned social commentator, and the author of a novel, Lotus