For members of Generation Z in China, winning at life does not necessarily involve getting married or having children, no matter how much their parents and the government want them to.
It is more about “living for yourself”, according to Janet Song, 25, who works at a pet cafe in Guangzhou and said she does not think the presence of a husband or child could help her be successful.
“My two elder female cousins and I are all only children in our respective families. They are both married but now encourage me not to get married if I don’t want to, and they say children are not a must,” Song said.
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“We all feel that modern urban life is becoming very convenient and welcoming to singletons, and that marriage and childbirth are almost synonymous with the stress of life for us young people.”
Young Chinese women, especially members of Gen Z born from roughly 1995-2010, are increasingly seeking diversity and individuality in their lives. Marriage is no longer among their priorities, let alone childbearing. And many find solace in knowing that their nonconformist outlook is shared by other young people, as evidenced by popular social media posts and advertising trends.
There has also been a strong resistance against the public push to incentivise young adults to start a family – including an overhaul of family-planning policies to allow people to have three children.
For such policies to be effective at increasing the birth rate, they must make young women feel as though their rights and quality of life will be improved more by having children than by not having them, according to Shen Jiake, a popular writer and an independent commentator with a large female following. Otherwise, he said, such policies will not serve to effectively increase the population.
“We have seen from the declining fertility rate that women are expressing their attitude towards [China’s] current marriage and childbirth policies through their actual actions,” he said.
National census data released in May showed that China’s fertility rate fell to 1.3 children per woman in 2020. A rate below 2.1 usually heralds a population decline.
Among young women, interest in getting married and having kids “is lower than ever”, says Liu Xin, creative director with an advertising agency. “The advertising and brand-management sector has felt it strongly from the market, as well as recent social news reports.”
For instance, she said, a brand or an idol may come under considerably public pressure if their messages or actions do not advocate for women’s rights.
‘Lying flat’ is prevalent among young women, not only in terms of work but also in respect to marriage and children
Liu Xin, creative director
“‘Live for yourself’ has become a go-to advertising campaign that many brands use to lure female consumers, since a large number of women under the age of 35 only want to please themselves in terms of consumption and lifestyles,” Liu said. “Marriage and childbirth may not make them feel happier, in comparison.
“Because many of them are only children at home, they want to have an easy life. Actually, ‘lying flat’ is prevalent among young women, not only in terms of work but also in respect to marriage and children,” she added.
Lying flat, or tang ping, represents the mindset of literally lying down instead of being a productive member of society. Rather than striving to study hard, buy a home, or even start a family, many young people are rejecting it all to “lie flat”.
Gen Z women’s willingness to get married also appears to be significantly lower than that of men in China.
A survey by the Communist Youth League in October found that, among 2,905 unwed urban residents aged 18-26, a total of 43.9 per cent of women said they either had no intention of getting married or were unsure if it would happen. That was 19.3 percentage points higher than their unwed male counterparts.
Meanwhile, with its 220 million members in China, Gen Z has the nation’s most unbalanced gender ratio, with 18.27 million more men than women.
According to a list of the bestselling women’s fiction books in 2021, released by ENData, the top sellers focused on women’s careers and their independent spirit, with sagas depicting strong heroines, rather than traditional romance novels about falling in love.
Since July, the reputations in China of at least three male celebrities have been damaged for acts including solicitation of a prostitute, being too controlling of a female partner in a relationship, and pressuring a spouse to have children.
The scandals ignited furious online debate, including over gender equality, with a large number of women saying they were rethinking the idea of marriage.
“For decades, Chinese urban families have been getting rich and accumulating wealth, and because of China’s one-child policy, a large proportion of that wealth is now owned by young urban females,” Shen said. “This has led to an objective fact and trend that half – or a large number of families – stand on the side of young women’s rights, in terms of attitudes toward marriage and childbearing.
“Besides, the number of well-educated and financially independent young women has equalled or even surpassed that of men of the same age. All of these factors will result in the attitudes and values of young women having a huge influence on society, especially on population trends.”
According to the central government’s China Statistical Yearbook 2021, women account for 52.7 per cent of those with a bachelor’s degree or above, among adults aged 20-34.
“That’s the dilemma that China’s population and gender-equality policies face,” Shen said. “We find that the people who make the policies and implement them are mainly males. As a result, many of the policies launched to stimulate marriage and childbirth actually do not understand and fit the deep-seated needs of young women.”
For example, a law that took effect this year requires a 30-day cooling-off period for couples who want to divorce. Also, policies meant to extend paid maternity leave for women can increase the discrimination that women face in the workplace.
According to a December report on China’s population projections – jointly released by well-known domestic economists and demographers such as Ren Zeping, Liang Jianzhang and Huang Wenyuan – some fertility incentives have been introduced recently, but they are so weak that their impact equates to a drop in the bucket.
[China’s] gender conflicts will become more and more intense in the future
Huang Wenzheng, demographer
The report also noted that, as the fertility rate in China’s major metropolitan cities is about 0.7-0.9, an increasingly urbanised young population could drag the national fertility rate down to 1.0 if effective countermeasures are not implemented.
The report concludes that if Beijing were to spend 1-3 per cent of the national GDP on encouraging childbirths, China would be able to keep its national fertility rate around 1.2 per cent – roughly close to that of Japan.
And it says if Beijing ramps up that investment to 5 per cent of GDP, the fertility rate could reach 1.6. In this scenario, China could see about 12.12 million births in 2030, and the total population would reach about 1.35 billion by 2050 – down from 1.412 billion in 2020.
“Anyway, women’s education and career levels are rising faster than men’s in China, while policies are lagging behind the changing views on marriage and childbearing among the youth,” said Huang Wenzheng, a demographer who has written extensively about the nation’s birth rate.
“The country’s gender conflicts will become more and more intense in the future.”
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