The Economist: Asia’s Lonely Hearts

An article describing the declining marriage rates in Asia from an economics standpoint was published in the print edition of The Economist‘s August 20th issue in 2011. Here is a link to the article, entitled “Asia’s lonely hearts: Why Asian women are rejecting marriage and what that means.”

The Article

The article’s concluding paragraph, and general summary of the conclusion of the article, says,

There is an historical precedent of falling and low marriage rates. It happened in Ireland in the late 19th century and in America and much of Europe in the 1930s. American and European marriage rates bounced back between 1945 and 1970. But Europe and America were different: marriage rates fell during an economic crisis and recovered as the economy did. The Asian peculiarity is that marriage rates have been eroding during a long boom. And as Asia gets richer, traditional marriage patterns are only likely to unravel further. (“Asia’s lonely hearts,” The Economist vol. 400, number 8747, August 20th-26th 2011, 21-24: 24.)

The author opens with a quote from a Taiwanese woman named Yi Zoe Hou, who is 35, unmarried, and has a career as a psychologist. The quote is used to generally demonstrate Asian women’s stance – particularly women in South Asia – on romantic relationships, marriage, and childbearing:

“It’s a global village,” she shrugs. “If I can’t find a Taiwanese guy that accepts my age, I can find another man somewhere else.” Maybe – but since she still wants children, Ms Hou is also wondering wether to use a sperm bank or ask a male friend to be a sperm donor. (21)

I have a concern with the second part of the statement. Granted, The Economist is not an academic journal but more of a news magazine particularly catering to those in the field of economics. Thus, it doesn’t have a strict requirement to be fair and unbiased. Besides, most academic articles are far from unbiased, but they at least tend to stay away from statements with such…’attitude.’

Confucian social values are held the most strongly in Asia, and the family is a cornerstone of Confucian ideology. The author cites the principle of xiushen or self-improvement and states that it “can be pursued only within the confines of the family” in Confucian cultures. The author connects economic success with the family through a quote from former prime minister of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew, who stated that values taught in the family are the same ones that define Asia’s economic attitudes (“learning and scholarship and hard work and thrift and deferment of present enjoyment for future gain”).

The end of the introduction reads this way:

Traditional attitudes live on in other ways. Compared with Westerners, Asians are more likely to agree that “women’s happiness lies in marriage.” They are more likely to say women should give up work when they get married or have children, and more likely to disapprove of pre-marital sex. (22)

The author seems to hold on to this statement tightly, despite going on to explain how attitudes in Asia are changing, and how “both East and West are seeing big changes in the role of women and traditional family life” (22). Here are the general points about the statistics of marriage in Asia cited in the article:

  1. The marriage age is now higher, 29-30 for women and 31-33 for men. That’s older than the “traditionally required” marriage age in Asia and the average marriage age in America.
  2. Some groups in Asia have pockets who do not get married at all. “In 2010 a third of Japanese women entering their 30s were single. Perhaps half or more of those will never marry.”
  3. Both of the first two points are significant because it is an extreme change in a  short period of time. “Only 30 years ago, just 2% of women were single in most Asian countries.”
  4. Many women who are unmarried have never married before, nor have they cohabited with a partner. “The conclusion is that East Asia’s growing cohorts of unmarried women reflect less the breakdown of marriange than the fact that they are avoiding it.”
  5. Divorces are also on the rise in East Asia.
  6. Childbearing has been reduced “from 5.3 in the 1960s to below 1.6 now, an enormous drop.”

It is at this point that the author begins to go into the growing autonomy that Asian women have been garnering only recently. Because of advances in social attitudes about women in education and the work force, Asian women have been able to get better jobs and higher education. With increased education comes increased knowledge and – according to the author – decreased likelihood or marriage. With higher salary comes more financial – and therefore social – independence. The opening statement about this is confusing: “Changing marriage patterns are also the result of improvements in women’s education and income, and the failure of women’s status to keep pace” (22). What does the second part mean?

The author states that most Asian women “marry up” in society – that is, they marry men who have a higher education and higher salary than themselves (23). The increase in education and monetary earnings for women, therefore, reduce not only the number of women who will decide to marry, but also the candidate pool of potential husbands, since these women will tend to avoid men who work menial jobs or are from the country and thus expect a traditional wife along with a traditional marriage. Asian women also have an aversion to “Mama’s boys,” or men in their 30s who have received privilege, never been given housework, and can’t be trusted “to keep promises (like marriage)” (quoted from a Taiwanese blogger Illyqueen, 23).

The author concedes that in Asia” women seem to bear an unusually large share of the burden of marriage, reducing the attractiveness of family life compared with work” (23). One third of Japanese women feel negatively about the success of their marriage. Asian women are usually “the sole caregivers for children, elderly parents or parents-in-laws. People generally assume they will continue to be so, even though many women have paid jobs outside the home” (23). Often women are forced to choose between a career and a family, which is similar to the American female conflict of career or family. However, Asian women’s choice is more difficult to make because the blending and balancing of the two is not held in high social regard and therefore makes the choice a binary – one or the other, but very rarely both. It is harder to do both because it is a less socially acceptable option.

South Korean sociologist Heeran Chun states that even though women now have equal education and earning power as men, “women have lower socioeconomic status than men… Their lives are markedly restricted by the cultural values associated with Confucianism” (23). Here we get back to the restrictions of the Confucian-based social values: as soon as a woman gets married or gives birth, she is expected to also convert entirely to a family-centric life, as is expected of a traditional Confucian woman’s role. The author explains, “It may also help to explain the unusually low marriage rates among the best-educated and best-paid women, for whom the opportunity cost of giving up a career to have children is greatest” (23).

The author also concedes that “the most important thing is that women who do not want to marry are no longer being forced to. And that must be a benefit: to them, to men spared an unhappy marriage; perhaps to society as a whole” (24).

So, why is this a problem? According to the author, there are several negative aspects to this. The first is that the social attitudes towards women, family, and childbearing have not advanced as quickly as the women themselves have (and thus, this is the answer to my earlier question of what the author meant earlier). The second is that contraception and sexual health services are usually limited to married couples: some health clinics “even demand to see the wedding certificate before dispensing condoms (that has happened in Europe, too)” (24). Plus, a decline in marriage combined with marrying up means that two groups will become super concentrated and have low marriage prospects – “men with no education and women with a lot” (24).

The most ardent point that the author wants to make is about the decline in Asian women’s marriage rates leading to an increase in “cross-border brides,” and potentially leading to a rise in prostitution and international bride trading and selling (basically a rise in sex trafficking), and (believe it or not) polyandry – one woman marrying many men (24). The author seems particularly worried about international bride trading, saying that “If China or India were ever to import brides on this scale, it would spread sexual catastrophe throughout Asia. As it is, that catastrophe may be hard to avoid” (24). What on earth is a “sexual catastrophe”?

That question is never answered.

Personal Conclusions

I have two main conclusions.

First, I can’t truly grasp why this article is in The Economist, not because I’m trying to say that it’s a bad article, but because the author’s main argument seems to be “The decline of marriage in Asia is bad because it deteriorates the traditional Confucian values of family life long-held within Asia.” To me, there isn’t an economic aspect that the author is truly trying to get at – so why is this article in an economics magazine?

Second, the author seems particularly biased against women’s autonomy and international marriages. While examining the difficulties of raising a family and mentioning the lower social status that women still have in Asia, the author seems to advocate for a traditional, Confucian family. That much can be seen in the statement about women no longer being forced to marry. The statement is mentioned briefly, then abandoned in favor of predicting all the negative aspects such a decision could have (all the sex trafficking talk). Sex trafficking is a terrible problem, but does women gaining independence and autonomy in a society that is traditionally patriarchal and family-centric directly influence that? Are these independent women responsible for the “sexual catastrophe” the author predicts?

It is unclear. I have said “the author” many times without making a reference to the author’s gender, mostly because the author is unnamed and thus his or her sex cannot be determined. However, a bias in favor of traditional Confucian social values and roles for women is loud and clear throughout the article. Nevermind the fact that women who are traditionally repressed and oppressed in Asian societies are rising in their personal ranks – educationally, vocationally, and sexually. These areas have been traditionally restricted to males only in the male-centric Confucian societies, leaving women far behind. Now that women have finally taken the initiative and improved themselves in their social ranks, despite the fact that the social attitude still needs time to change, this author seems to be arguing against these improvements without providing adequate evidence for the claim other than worrying about how the traditional family unit is unraveling. Family is important, but is it more important than women’s social empowerment?

That question, which feminists have struggled with for years, has yet to be answered satisfactorily. Still, I would think that women’s social empowerment is more important for Asia right now, particularly because Asian women have been kept in the dregs of society for so long. It’s about time that they were recognized for their strength and their capabilities. Modern Asian women are independent, passionate, extremely capable, and should be allowed to make their own decisions about their lives.

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