For the last few years, there has been a lot of hand-wringing about sex-selective abortion in India and China, which has led to a significant excess of males. About 15-20% more male babies than female babies are now recorded in these societies, leading to anxiety that in 2030 as many as 60 million young Chinese and Indian men will not match up with women in marriage. The Economist last week worried that “This alone will wreck Asia’s tradition of universal marriage.”
But The Economist has that wrong. Asia does NOT have a a tradition of universal marriage; it has a tradition of universal female marriage. Traditional Chinese families favored male births over female just as much as modern ones. But lacking ultrasound scanners, they just had to wait until seeing the sex of a baby to determine whether to keep it alive.
For traditional Chinese and Indian families, children were not fully alive until they had survived their first year. Deliberate infanticide was a matter of household economy, not the moral outrage it is in the West. So there has always been a surplus of surviving males. In addition, women sought to marry up, leaving poorer men unable to marry. And traditional Asian societies allowed wealthy men to keep concubines, further depleting the pool of eligible brides for ordinary men.
The result was that close examination of Chinese lineage records from the Imperial period show that while marriage was indeed universal for women, about 20% of men remained unmarried all their lives — the same level that is claimed as a dangerous novelty in modern Asian societies! (See James Lee and Wang Feng’s wonderful book, One Quarter of Humanity: Malthusian Mythology and Chinese Realities, 1700-2000.)
While this historically normal level of male non-marriage has been cause for recent alarm, little attention has been given to women. For women, it was assumed universal marriage would continue. That is the traditional Asian pattern, after all, and women would now have their choice of eligible suitors.
Yet in the richer Asian nations, women have been fleeing marriage (as described in The Economist’s cover story last week). This is because for women, Asian marriage is a raw deal. In Asia, women are expected to take care of the family first, including parents and in-laws. If they leave work to perform this duty, they are not welcomed back into the labor force. And rigid divorce laws mean that once in a marriage, there is no easy way out. So women with ambition and education have to make a choice (not unlike their American counterparts in the 1950s) — get locked into a traditional marriage or have a career.
Unsurprisingly, as educational levels among Asian women have increased, a large portion of them are deciding against marriage, either delaying marriage into their 30s or not marrying at all. From Thailand to Tokyo, over a fifth of all women aged 40-44 are not married.
While one can applaud Asia’s women for asserting their freedom, if this level of chosen non-marriage spreads to China and India as their women grow better educated, and collides with an already significant imbalance of sexes, it may leave thirty-five to forty percent of men without wives. That is a historically unseen rate of bachelorhood in any known society, but it is not due to the surplus of male babies, which is not historically new, but due to the unprecedented withdrawal of women from universal female marriage. It is difficult to know what the consequences will be for men — although one guess would be sustaining the culture of the fraternity or street gang or other predominantly male preserves into later adulthood.
More perilous by far, however, is the collapse in fertility that has arisen as fewer women are born and more of them choose to marry late or not at all. In Singapore and South Korea, total fertility rates are close to 1.2. At that rate, the population will fall by 40 percent every generation, leading to near extinction of society in about five generations — although long before then society will be bankrupt from ever smaller younger generations having to support far larger numbers of parents and grandparents.
There is a simple solution, of course — that is to increase women’s rights within marriage so that they do not have to seek freedom by evading marriage. Most critical would be easier divorce laws. By custom, most Asian men expect wives to be servants; that custom will not change unless women are free to leave husbands that are abusive or unwilling to treat them like partners in family matters.
Divorce laws that enable women to easily leave an unpleasant marriage may sound like a threat to the family. But with women choosing not to marry in large numbers, the family is not only declining, that decline is threatening to take the richer Asian societies down with it. If Asian societies are to return to the fertility rates of around 2.2 that are necessary to survive and prosper, marriage will have to become more pleasant for women than it is today. And that will only come about when it is easier for women to leave bad ones.