Volume 43 - Article 46 | Pages 1367–1398  

Demographic change and increasing late singlehood in East Asia, 2010–2050

By Albert Esteve, Ridhi Kashyap, Joan García Román, Yen-Hsin Alice Cheng, Setsuya Fukuda, Wanli Nie, Hyun-ok Lee


Background: Marriage is a central institution for social reproduction in East Asia. Until the 1970s and 1980s, marriage across much of East Asia was early and universal. In recent decades, though, this pattern has begun shifting to one of later and less marriage.

Objective: We explore the long-term implications for universal marriage patterns of future demographic change in marriage markets in the context of prevailing marriage norms by projecting trends in late singlehood (ages 45 to 49) in four East Asian societies (China, South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan).

Methods: We estimate forces of attraction to characterize marriage matching norms by age and education across these different societies by drawing on large-scale population data. Next, we develop counterfactual scenarios in which we apply contemporary norms to future population structures in these societies, as well as scenarios based on more gender-symmetrical matching norms to examine how populations who have never been married by ages 45 to 49 would evolve.

Results: Our projections indicate that in the coming decades there will be a substantial increase in late singlehood across all these societies relative to their 2010 levels. These increases in singlehood are driven by forthcoming demographic changes in the marriage market that intensify the effects of prevailing matching norms. These increases are notable in Taiwan and South Korea, where recent data indicate generalized weak propensities to marry in current norms. While a shift toward greater gender symmetry in matching norms would reverse gender gaps between men and women in nonmarriage, it would have little impact on the overall projected proportions of singles by ages 45 to 49.

Conclusions: If prevailing norms in each of these contexts continue, the universality of marriage will be substantially eroded in the coming decades, even if norms become more gender symmetrical. The extent to which nonmarital cohabitation and childbearing emerge in the future will determine how marriage will influence fertility trends, population growth, aging, and social reproduction.

Contribution: For the first time, we project the implications for universal marriage of recent shifts in marriage norms and demographic change in East Asian countries.

Author's Affiliation

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