China

China's 'Leftover Ladies' Are Anything But


China's 'Leftover Ladies' Are Anything But

Photograph by Philip Gostelow

Since Scarlet He was born in 1972, at the height of the Cultural Revolution, values in China have changed. Over lunch at a Hong Kong-style restaurant on the fifth floor of a Beijing shopping mall, she explains that of her seven best girlfriends growing up, all have gone to college and pursued careers. Only two are married, while the others have either divorced or, like her, simply never gotten around to it. “Happily never married,” the 40-year-old entrepreneur adds. “Marriage is only for having children.” In her view, it wasn’t necessarily good for relationships. “Once you are married, the man begins to take you for granted. But I am still free.”

Most younger women in China will still marry, but a growing number are choosing to stress education and career over finding a mate. In a country where universal marriage for women was the norm for centuries, it’s the most educated and financially independent urban women who are most likely to delay marriage or remain single. According to a census analysis by Wang Feng, director of the Brookings-Tsinghua Center for Public Policy in Beijing, an estimated 7 percent of college-educated women in Shanghai remain single at age 45—“a significant change from the past,” he emphasizes. Wang calculates that in urban China the number of never-married women ages 25 to 34 is about 7 million.

Sipping a green tea latte at a Starbucks (SBUX) in downtown Beijing, 33-year-old Yang Jing, or Jasmine, says she still hopes to marry, but for now she values her independence and career as a corporate responsibility manager for HSBC (HBC) bank. Born in 1979, the first year of China’s economic reforms, she has in many ways lived out the modern Chinese dream: Following graduation from prestigious Renmin University of China in Beijing, Yang started her career as an assistant bank teller. She was rewarded with repeated promotions and describes her current position as “exciting and challenging.” Yang has vacationed throughout Asia, visiting Thailand, Nepal, Malaysia, and the Philippines. While her parents exert pressure on her to tie the knot soon, preferably with someone wealthy, Yang is saving to buy an apartment, a marker of financial independence. “I am already 33 years old, and I want to be independent and not move into a different person’s house,” she says.

Refuting stereotypes of docility, today’s Chinese professional women say they are even more ambitious at work than their American counterparts. Seventy-six percent of Chinese women surveyed in 2011 by the New York-based Center for Talent Innovation said they “aspire to top jobs,” vs. 52 percent of Americans. Chinese women employed by multinational companies frequently work more than 70 hours a week.

One hurdle in finding a spouse is China’s long-standing tradition of hypergamy—or women marrying up, in terms of income and status. The older and more accomplished a Chinese woman is, the narrower her potential dating pool, explains professor Li Yinhe, who researches sex and relationships at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS). Even with millions more men than women overall in China—due to rampant abortions of female fetuses by couples hoping for a son—the prospects aren’t necessarily easier for women “at the top of the social pyramid.” As Yang says: “A-class women don’t match with B-class men.”

According to Brookings-Tsinghua’s Wang, just 5 percent of urban Chinese women in their late 20s were still single in 1982, but that figure has risen to 27 percent today. A smaller but growing percentage remain single into their 30s and 40s. As the country continues to urbanize and more women have expanded career opportunities, Wang expects that China will follow the pattern of other East Asian countries, including Korea, Taiwan, Japan, and Singapore, where the trend of women delaying or forgoing marriage is even more pronounced.

The ranks of single professional women in Chinese cities are already attracting attention from media and marketers alike. Unmarried women in their late 20s or older are often referred to in newspaper reports and sitcoms as sheng nu, or “leftover ladies,” a term that misleadingly implies these women have failed to meet men’s standards, as opposed to having higher standards of their own. In March, China’s top online dating portal, Jiayuan.com, released a report based on its 85,498-person survey titled Confessions of a Leftover Lady. The survey confirmed the belief among Chinese women born in the 1970s and ’80s that the more education they have and the higher their salaries, the harder the task of finding a husband.

Whether these women marry later or not at all, the ranks of urban singles with disposable income represent a significant consumer demographic in China. In March, McKinsey China released a report, Meet the 2020 Chinese Consumer, spotlighting the trends of “increasingly independent women” and “delayed life stages”—i.e., marriage and childbirth. “People devote more years to education, and career is more important than in the past. Women tend to marry later,” explains McKinsey’s Li Hihua. In the meantime, single and childless women spend “more on personal products,” such as skin care, apparel, and makeup, and relatively less on household goods. “And they eat out with friends instead of cooking at home.”

Delayed or forgone marriage does not necessarily mean less sex. According to CASS professor Li, the percentage of young women in Beijing who were sexually experienced before their weddings in 1989 was just 15 percent. Today it is between 60 percent and 70 percent. “There are more different kinds of relationships—and over time parents gradually have less influence.”

The bottom line: The number of never-married urban Chinese women ages 25 to 34 is around 7 million, a dramatic increase from the 1980s.

Larson is a Bloomberg Businessweek contributor.

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