China's "Leftover" Men and Women
Chinese cities, policies, and society should embrace an age of singlehood.
Posted January 24, 2022 | Reviewed by Devon Frye
In traditional Chinese culture, carrying on the family lineage is often seen as most important. Therefore, parents are usually actively involved when their children reach marriageable age. The country's (now-defunct) "one-child policy" reinforced this involvement, as only children are often seen as the family's "only hope.”
But this reality has now come face to face with the age of singlehood. Data suggests that young men and women in China are increasingly choosing the single life, many "disappointing" their parents in the process. Women who remain single in their late 20s and beyond, in particular, tend to face negative discourse. The term "leftover women" has been used excessively by China's popular culture, heightening the anxiety of single women’s parents, leading them to exert more pressure on their daughters.
Indeed, a decline in household size fueled by a rise in the number of one-person households has become apparent in China over the last several decades [1, 2]. Official statistics indicate that the percentage of one-person households rose from just 4.9 percent in 1990 to 14.5 percent in 2010, where 58 million households were registered with only a single occupier .
Other statistics show that in 2018, there were about 200 million single adults residing in China and more than a third of them lived alone. Moreover, the divorce rate in China has soared from around 0.96 divorces per 1,000 people in 2000 to 3.36 divorces in 2019.
The population of one-person households is increasingly heterogeneous and indicative of demographic, economic, and societal changes. With respect to health, for example, the average lifespan increased from 68.55 years in 1990 to 74.83 years in 2010, and so the expected widowhood and therefore single-occupancy among the elderly has increased. Development and increased economic opportunity have shifted societal focus towards industrial and business careers, and as a result, fewer young people are working in agriculture .
This shift away from traditional society provides a greater opportunity to live a single lifestyle. The industrialization process has been accompanied by internal migration away from the country and toward the city, and unprecedented urbanization of rural areas. In turn, this shift has exposed new populations and the youngest generation to alternative ways of living such as marrying late, being networked, and staying single .
The process of industrialization has also forced a significant number of workers to either commute long distances for work or to adopt more than one permanent address, leading to a lifestyle that is more conducive to singledom. Indeed, by analyzing census data, Cheung and Yeung  found the proportion of “floating” individuals (those with no fixed addresses) to be positively correlated with living alone. Moreover, the same study found non-agricultural infrastructure to be positively correlated with the percentage of one-person households, as well as a positive relationship between single-person households and education levels.
It seems there may be no way back for China—and instead of naming young men and women "leftovers" and other derogatory nicknames, Chinese society may want to learn to accept and embrace the rise of solo living and prepare cities, policies, and society at large for an age of singlehood.
1. Zhigang, G., Study on Changes of China Family Households in Recent Years [J]. Chinese Journal of Population Science, 2008. 3: p. 2-10.
2. Zhao, Z. and W. Chen, Changes in household formation and composition in China since the mid-twentieth century. Journal of Population Research, 2008. 25(3): p. 267-286.
3. National Bureau of Statistics of China, China Statistics: National Statistics. 2013: Beijing.
4. Eng, I., The rise of manufacturing towns: externally driven industrialization and urban development in the Pearl River Delta of China. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 1997. 21(4): p. 554-568.
5. Chen, N.N., China urban: Ethnographies of contemporary culture. 2001: Duke University Press.
6. Cheung, A.K.-L. and W.-J.J. Yeung, Temporal-spatial patterns of one-person households in China, 1982-2005. Demographic Research, 2015. S15(44): p. 1209-1238.