18th June 2024 – (Beijing) China’s declining marriage and birth rates have emerged as significant challenges to the country’s future workforce and economic stability. Despite recent efforts to encourage marriages and childbirths, such as pilot projects in 20 cities to promote a child-bearing-friendly social environment, the latest figures paint a concerning picture. In the first quarter of 2024, China’s marriage rate fell by 8.2 per cent compared to the same period in 2023, with only 1.969 million new marriages registered. This downward trend, coupled with falling birth rates and an ageing population, threatens to shrink China’s workforce and place increased strain on its pension system.

Several factors contribute to this demographic shift, including changing attitudes among younger generations, the high costs associated with raising children, and a persistent gender imbalance. While the government has taken steps to address these issues, such as scrapping limits on the number of children per married couple and launching campaigns against outdated customs like exorbitant “bride prices,” the effectiveness of these measures remains to be seen.

Demographers emphasise that a comprehensive, long-term approach is necessary to foster a more favourable environment for marriage and childbearing. This involves not only addressing immediate concerns but also reshaping social norms and expectations surrounding family life.

One critical aspect is promoting a more balanced view of marriage and parenthood among younger generations. As China has rapidly modernised, many young people have prioritised career advancement and personal fulfilment over starting a family. While these aspirations are understandable, it is essential to highlight the value and joy of family life alongside individual pursuits. Educational campaigns and media initiatives that showcase positive examples of married couples and parents could help shift attitudes and encourage more young people to consider marriage and childbearing as rewarding life choices.

Addressing the persistent gender imbalance is another crucial piece of the puzzle. China’s long-standing preference for male children, exacerbated by the now-defunct one-child policy, has resulted in a skewed sex ratio at birth. This imbalance not only perpetuates harmful gender stereotypes but also reduces the pool of potential marriage partners for men, further contributing to declining marriage rates. Strengthening efforts to combat gender discrimination, both in society and the workplace, and promoting the value of girls and women, can help correct this imbalance over time.

Equally important is creating a more supportive environment for families, particularly those with young children. The high costs of education, healthcare, and housing in many Chinese cities can deter couples from having children or limit their family size. Expanding access to affordable, quality childcare and education, as well as implementing more generous parental leave policies and flexible work arrangements, can ease the financial and logistical burdens on families. Additionally, improving access to reproductive health services and education can help couples plan their families more effectively and reduce the incidence of unintended pregnancies.

While some have suggested that the government should actively push people to marry, as has been attempted in other countries like the United States, such an approach is likely to be ineffective and even counterproductive. Marriage and childbearing are deeply personal choices that cannot be forced or coerced. Instead, the focus should be on creating the conditions that enable individuals to make these choices freely and confidently.

This means investing in policies and programs that promote economic stability, social equity, and personal well-being. Ensuring access to quality education and job opportunities, particularly for those from disadvantaged backgrounds, can help break cycles of poverty and improve overall life prospects. Strengthening social safety nets and support services for single parents and their children can also help mitigate the negative impacts of family breakdown and ensure that all children have the opportunity to thrive.

Ultimately, tackling China’s falling marriage and birth rates requires a holistic, long-term approach that recognises the complex interplay of economic, social, and cultural factors. While there are no easy solutions, investing in policies and initiatives that support families, promote gender equality, and foster a more inclusive and equitable society can help create a more sustainable future for China’s population and economy.