Weekend Long Read: The Facts and Fables About China’s Singles Economy
In China, the cities are bigger, but the families are smaller.
Over the past 40 years, the average household size in the country has continued to decline, from 4.41 members per household on average in 1982 to 3.1 in 2010. According to the Seventh National Population Census in 2020, China’s average household size has hit a record low of 2.62 members per family.
The number of three-person households, commonly seen in China, is falling and is instead replaced by a rising number of one-person households. Census data and sample survey data from the National Bureau of Statistics show that the proportion of one-person households in China’s total has shot up from 2.52% in 2000 to 18.45% in 2019. A rough estimate suggests that more than 100 million Chinese live alone. As a Chinese saying goes: “The whole family is not hungry when one is fed.” More and more Chinese now live alone and only need to take care of themselves, rather than support an entire family.
The rise of single-person households has become a critical trend in Chinese society, spurring a series of new economic forms, business models and social phenomena. A vibrant singles economy is on the rise.
A customer dines in a restaurant with “one-person seats” in Beijing in November 2020. Photo: VCG
To better meet the needs of the single consumers, the market has continually devised more personalized, refined niche products. “Solo dining,” “solo living” and “solo travel” have become incredibly popular, and there are even customized services for renting fake boyfriends or girlfriends for a day. So, how high is the percentage of single people in China? What does the “singles economy” mean for the long-term development of society?
Who are these singles?
By age, young people and senior citizens account for the greatest share of China’s singles.
Data from the 2015 national population sample survey indicates that, for people above the legal age to marry, the youth and seniors are the most likely to be single — 50% of those under age 30 and 60% of those at age 80. However, people of different age groups have different reasons for being single. Among singles, most adults under 30 have never been married, 45% of people aged 40-49 are divorced singles, and most of those over 50 are widows or widowers.
Since the start of the 21st century, the proportion of young and middle-aged singles has grown sharply due to the rising divorce rate and the trend of young people waiting longer to get married for the first time. There were two noticeable changes between 2000 and 2015. First, the percentage of unmarried people in their 30s rose from 65% to 72%. Second, the percentage divorced singles in their 40s and 50s has also been on a clear upward trend.
In terms of gender, although the growing number of “shengnü” (“leftover women,” a Chinese term for women who are still unmarried after reaching their late 20s or early 30s) has gotten a lot of attention, is it actually true that there are more single women than men now?
Statistics show the opposite — among young adults, the percentage of single men is slightly higher than that of single women. In many rural areas, the phenomenon of “guanggun” (“bare branches,” a Chinese term used to refer to men who do not marry and thus do not add “branches” to the family tree) is rising. However, in older age groups, women surpass men and make up the majority of the single population. The share of single women over age 50 is even higher. Some 75% of women over 80 are single, compared with 42% of men in the same age group. This also reflects the difference in life expectancy between men and women.
The percentage of adults who are single also varies by education. In the dating or the marriage market, the more education you have, the harder it will be for you to find people to date. In terms of education, 42% of people with a master’s degree are single, the highest percentage of any education group, compared with 40% of those with a bachelor’s degree and 38% of those who have never been to university. The lowest percentages were found among those who only graduated from elementary school, junior high school or high school. Educational backgrounds have different impacts on men and women. The more educated women are, the more likely they are to be single. Among those who are single and have an associate degree or higher, women account for 6% to 11%. Meanwhile, women account for a significant proportion of singles whose highest educational attainment is primary school or those who never went to school. This could be because most of the single seniors are women and generally have less education. In contrast, among unmarried people who have graduated from junior and senior high school, men make up a greater share than women.
So, will the number and proportion of single people continue to grow in the future?
Data trends have given us the answer. According to the four censuses taken from 2000 to 2015, the proportion of singles among young and middle-aged people under 40 is rising sharply. If the current trends continue, the percentage of single young adults will climb, especially young singles in their 30s. The rising average age of marriage has become a global trend. According to data from the Pew Research Center in the United States, the average age of people getting married for the first time has risen by about five years for both men and women over the past 50 years.
Being single does not automatically make one a noble
The term “single economy” is an offshoot of the “single-women economy” phenomenon, which first got attention in 2001. Single women live alone and earn a lot, thus tend to spend more. After that, the single economy gradually got detached from women, but the “noble” tag remains — singles are likely to be highly educated, have high incomes and high spending habits, while “enjoying life and having fun.” But, in China, are singles really “noble”? Let us take a look at the income and consumption data and answer two key questions.
Do singles work harder and make more money?
In today’s urban TV dramas, the image of successful single people has become common — most of them are labeled workaholics and have high incomes. Eric Klinenberg also mentioned in his book, “Going Solo,” that the one thing singles have in common is that they spend all of their free time working. So, in real life, do single people truly work harder and earn more than married ones?
Teresa Xu, 31, plays with a dog in Beijing in December 2019. She went to court challenging rules that forbid unmarried women from freezing their eggs in the first case of its kind in China. Photo: VCG
Based on data from the 2017 China Family Finance Survey (CHFS), the average monthly salary of singles between the legal marrying age and 30 is 3,567 yuan ($557.50). The figure is 4,038 yuan for singles in their 30s, and 3,226 yuan for singles in their 40s.
These amounts are lower than those for the corresponding age group by 7.3%, 9.9%, and 18.2%, respectively. From this, we can see that the income gap gradually widens with age. Even among people with the same characteristics (sex, education level, age, place of residence and type of household registration), the average income of single people is still 13.7% lower than that of married people.
For men, singles earn significantly less than their coupled-up counterparts. The average monthly earnings for single men aged 20-49 is 3,786 yuan, lower than that of married men, which is at 4,703 yuan. This finding is similar to the results of previous studies in the United States, even after considering two groups’ different backgrounds and levels of experience, knowledge and skills. There are two possible reasons for the rise in wages of married people. First, marriage makes men concentrate more on their work, thereby becoming more productive; second, employers prefer married men. However, on average, singled men are paid less, regardless of the reason.
For women, the picture is different. Studies made abroad in the last century have found that married women usually make less money than their unmarried peers. This is mainly because married women spend more time on household chores given the traditional division of household labor. However, with the advancement of women’s equality and labor-saving devices to lighten the burden of domestic work, the income gap between married and unmarried women is gradually shrinking. Soon, the wages of married women with no children are likely to surpass those of single women. These results are also generally consistent with the data in China. The survey data from the 2017 CHFS indicate that the average wage for single women aged 20-49 is 3,400 yuan, which is only slightly lower than the wage of 3,482 yuan for married women.
Are singles more likely to spend money on themselves?
One of the important reasons why businesses are optimistic about the rise of the “single economy” is that they have grown more conscientious of singles’ need to indulge themselves. It is generally believed that singles focus more on improving their quality of life and making time for leisure, in addition to basic living expenses.
In terms of the total consumption spending, singles do shell out more than married people. According to the 2017 CHFS data, on average, multi-person households spend 52,000 yuan per year, 15,000 yuan per capita, whereas single-person households spend 28,000 yuan per year. The per capita household spending of single-person households is nearly twice that of multi-person households. Even if we take away spending on minors, the total expenditure per capita for multi-person households is 18,000 yuan per year, much lower than that of single-person households.
But single people spend more on essential living expenses, not on self-indulgence. The data show that, compared with single-person households, the per capita spending for multi-person households is 36% lower on health care, 32.3% lower on food, 24.9% lower on housing, including water, electricity and heating, and 16% lower on consumer products. If we look at the ratio of total spending to total income, the per capita spending for multi-person households is also lower than single-person households, especially in food, health care and housing, which are 12.2%, 4.3% and 3.4% lower, respectively. This also confirms that living with partners can reduce the cost of living significantly and that being single is more expensive. According to the Meituan Research Institute’s Report on the Development of China’s Food Delivery Industry in 2019 and the First Half of 2020, singles are the main consumers of food delivery, accounting for as much as 44.6%, while nearly 67% say that they order delivery because they “do not feel like going out.”
Contrary to popular belief, multi-person households actually spend more to please themselves. In addition, their per capita spending on transportation, clothing and culture and entertainment also top those of single-person households by 95.9%, 63.6%, and 23%, respectively.
An elderly bachelor works on an old house in Xi’an, Northwest China’s Shaanxi province. Photo: VCG
Meanwhile, the saving rate of multi-person households is much greater than that of single-person households, which will help enhance their ability to manage risks. According to the 2017 CHFS data, the per capita consumption/income is 77.8% for multi-person households and 97.4% for single-person households. This means that singles spend almost all of their monthly income each month. The difference between these two numbers is almost 20 percentage points. As it turns out, the so-called noble singles often have no money left at the end of the month. According to Nielsen’s Report on the Rising of China’s Single Economy, 40% of surveyed singles said they have never purchased any kind of financial product, much higher than the 22% of non-singles.
The hidden dangers behind the singles economy
While businesses praise the single economy and create customized products and services, it should be noted that the single economy is a natural outcome of changing demographics.
Globally, economic and social development and increasing levels of education for younger generations have accompanied growth in the number and the percentage of single people. According to the book, “Going Solo,” over 50% of American adults are single. In 1950, that number was only 22%.
In China, people stay single for two main reasons. First is the gender imbalance. The Seventh National Population Census shows that the sex ratio stands at 105.07. Sex ratios at younger ages are even higher. According to the China Statistical Yearbook 2020, the sex ratio of the population aged under 25 exceeds 110. Second is the increasing levels of education among Chinese people, especially women. As women have gained more economic control over their lives, marriage is no longer their only choice. People’s attitudes toward marriage have also changed. The concept of soul mates and the belief that “I would rather go without than have something shoddy” in modern society have led to delays in marriage and an increase in the divorce rate. The average age of a first marriage has soared from 23 in 1990 to 26.5 in 2018, and the divorce rate has risen from 0.5% in 1987 to 2.6% in 2020.
The single economy is a supply-side adjustment to this demographic change. It is expected that the percentage of unmarried people will continue to rise. There will be more singles, and the single economy will grow. However, while businesses wish to develop new forms of consumption, there is no need to excessively advertize the idea that being single equals freedom, or otherwise encourage people to stay single.
For businesses, the decline in birth rates and issues of population aging brought about by the constant growth of single people will inevitably lead to a decline in consumer spending and an economic slowdown in society in the long run. From this point of view, excessively promoting the single economy and advocating the “trillion yuan singles market” is nothing but killing the goose that laid the golden egg.
For individuals, living alone may be exciting when you are young, but there are hidden crises when you grow old. The thought of lacking home care when severe illness strikes and the possibility of dying alone scares many single dwellers. Japan, which has a higher proportion of elderly citizens than China, considers living alone, especially among older people, a significant social issue.
For the whole of society, the increasing number of people who stay single will bring long-term challenges that should not be overlooked. Human capital can help to drive long-term economic growth. The rise of single people will accelerate the decline in fertility rates, resulting in insufficient momentum for social development. Falling fertility is causing the population to age at a faster pace, reducing the society’s capability to innovate and diminishing economic dynamism.
After all, for some people, they may have no choice but to remain single in the face of “neijuan,” or involution — a popular term used in China referring to excessive, never-ending competition over limited opportunities — over marriage and education. When the fertility rate gets low and human capital is about to be depleted, it is critical to focus on removing the barriers to marriage and having babies. Instead of focusing too much on the single economy itself, it would be better to shift our attention to aspects of people’s livelihood such as fertility, education and housing. After support policies to alleviate the people’s pressure on marriage and education have been improved, being single will no longer be the only option, but a choice for specific individuals.
Feng Shuaizhang is the dean of the School of Economics, the Institute for Economic and Social Research and the Rural Revitalization Research Institute at Jinan University, as well as a distinguished professor of the Yangtze River Scholars Program. Han Yujie is an assistant professor at the Institute for Economic and Social Research at Jinan University, and a researcher at the Rural Revitalization Research Institute at Jinan University.
Contact editors Michael Bellart (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Joshua Dummer (email@example.com)
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