Shifting Views in Asia: Marriage and Fertility Rates Are Dropping Significantly

by Erina Davidson

Of the 6.78 billion people on Earth, over 60% of the population belongs to Asia. In the last two decades, the Asia-Pacific population has been growing at a slower rate compared to the rest of the world, according to the United Nations. A recent study by the East-West Center, a research center based in Hawaii, reveals that a great societal change is taking place in various nations of East and Southeast Asia – the marriage and fertility rates are dropping significantly among Asian women.

“In each of these societies, fertility has dropped very steeply, [which] I think [is] surprising demographers,” says Sidney Westley, a Communications Specialist at the East-West Center. Minja Kim Choe, a senior fellow and family and gender expert at the EWC, says to understand the issue, a closer look must be taken at “attitudes on marriage, childbearing, and gender role,” as well as economics. In a recent study, she notes that the Korean family system, based on Confucian ideology and formalized in the mid-17th century, has undergone major changes with the modernization of the country over the past few decades.

“It’s not surprising then,” Choe says, “that women in modern Korea, who have a high level of education and therefore have the potential for economic independence, have developed non-traditional views on marriage” and childbearing.

But these findings are not limited to Korean women. An increasing proportion of women and men in Asia are dismissing marriage as a necessary component of a full and satisfying life.

Over the past few decades, the mean age of marriage in Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, and Hong Kong has risen sharply – 29 to 30 for women, and 31 to 33 for men. Almost a third of Japanese women in their early 30s are unmarried, and over one-fifth of Taiwanese women in their late 30s are single. This trend in later-marriage and non-marriage have yet to impact China and South Asia, where 98% of the men and women tie the knot. While the view on marriage is changing elsewhere in Asia, marriage continues to be the accepted core of Indian and Chinese family systems.

EWC’s study found that Asian women are putting off starting a family amid gains in education, employment, and living standards, combined with breakthroughs in health and family-planning technology. Bob Retherford, EWC’s Coordinator of Population and Health Studies, says those reasons are reflected in two main areas. “One is later marriage and less marriage. And the second major category is lower fertility within marriage,” he said. “And then there is an emergence of the idea that it is okay to enjoy single life without pressure to get married. That has become socially acceptable. That is a major value change.”

Minja Choe also notes one big difference between Asian and Western nations. “In [Japan, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan], people do not have children outside marriage.” That is unlike other nations with low fertility rates, such as the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, and many European countries, she says.

In most of Asia, marriage is widespread and illegitimacy almost unknown. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, just 2% of children in Japan are born to unmarried mothers. In comparison, 40.6% of children in the U.S. were born out of wedlock in 2008. The percentages are higher for other Western countries, such as Iceland (66%) and Sweden (55%). 

Romantic love is rarely the reason for wedlock in traditional societies, where the main function of marriage is to produce a family. In East Asia, the fertility rate has fallen from 5.3 children in the late 1960s to below 1.6 per woman. Today, Asian women are focusing on other aspects of life – a social life outside of marriage, pursuing careers –  by delaying childbearing, which also means delaying marriage.

In most Asian nations, divorce is considered an immoral practice and laws prevent individuals from breaking out of a marriage. Because of this, the marriage rate may continue to fall, should the governments’ stand on divorce laws remain firm. The Economist proposes some ‘solutions’ in order to stimulate a growth in marriage:

Relaxing divorce laws might, paradoxically, boost marriage. Women who now steer clear of wedlock might be more willing to tie the knot if they know it can be untied—not just because they can get out of the marriage if it doesn’t work, but also because their freedom to leave might keep their husbands on their toes. Family law should give divorced women a more generous share of the couple’s assets. Governments should also legislate to get employers to offer both maternal and paternal leave, and provide or subsidize child care. If taking on such expenses helped promote family life, it might reduce the burden on the state of looking after the old.


Sources: The Economist, The Economist (2) , East-West Center, NY Times, Voice of America



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