This blog is intended to go along with Population: An Introduction to Concepts and Issues, by John R. Weeks, published by Cengage Learning. The latest edition is the 12th (it came out in 2015), but this blog is meant to complement any edition of the book by showing the way in which demographic issues are regularly in the news.

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Sunday, August 21, 2011

Women in Asia are Just Saying No to Marriage

The Economist's lengthy cover story this week is about the flight from marriage among women in Asia. Japan continues to be the prime example, but the story notes that the phenomenon is spreading to other Asian countries, including China and India. The basic story is a familiar one: women are increasingly better educated and in the labor force, but they are still expected to do the bulk of childcare, eldercare, and housework, while at the same time having little ability to divorce a man they no longer want to live with. This is pretty much a bad deal, and many women are rejecting it.
What is remarkable about the Asian experience is not that women are unmarried in their 30s—that happens in the West, too—but that they have never been married and have rarely cohabited. In Sweden, the proportion of women in their late 30s who are single is higher than in Asia, at 41%. But that is because marriage is disappearing as a norm. Swedish women are still setting up homes and having children, just outside wedlock. Not in Asia. Avoiding both illegitimacy and cohabitation, Asian women appear to be living a more celibate life than their Western sisters (admittedly, they could also be under-reporting rates of cohabitation and pre-marital sex). The conclusion is that East Asia’s growing cohorts of unmarried women reflect less the breakdown of marriage than the fact that they are avoiding it.
As women avoid marriage, men are forced to do the same even if they don't want to. In China, in particular, this is increasingly complicated by the distorted sex ratio at birth.
China has coined new terms to describe the two groups: sheng-nu (left-over women) and guang gun (bare branches, or men who will not add to the family tree). “Bare branches” is most commonly used in China to refer to men who will be unable to marry because of sex-selective abortion. And that encapsulates the biggest worry about Asia’s flight from marriage. If (when?) it spreads to China and India, it will combine with the surplus of bachelors to cause unheard-of strains. Prostitution could rise; brides could be traded like commodities, or women forced to “marry” several men; wives could be kept in purdah by jealous, fearful husbands.
The Economist notes that one solution to the bare branches problem is to bring in foreign brides, but that will only work as long as there is a supply of such women (usually through a deal brokered by their families), and the rise in the status of women is bound to bring that to an end.

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