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Monday, August 22, 2011

ASIAN DEMOGRAPHY: The flight from marriage!


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economist.com / Aug 20th 2011 / SEOUL AND TAIPEI / from the print edition.



WITH her filmy polka-dot dress, huge sunglasses and career as a psychologist, Yi Zoe Hou of Taiwan might seem likely to be besieged by suitors. Yet, at 35, she is well past Taiwan’s unspoken marriage deadline. “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 whether to use a sperm bank or ask a male friend to be a sperm donor. She represents a new world of family life for Asians.
Conservatives in the West are fond of saying that the traditional family is the bedrock of society. That view is held even more widely in Asia. The family is the focus of Confucian ethics, which holds that a basic moral principle, xiushen (self-improvement), can be pursued only within the confines of the family. In an interview in 1994 Lee Kuan Yew, a former prime minister of Singapore, argued that after thousands of years of dynastic upheaval, the family is the only institution left to sustain Chinese culture. It embodies a set of virtues—“learning and scholarship and hard work and thrift and deferment of present enjoyment for future gain”—which, he said, underpins Asia’s economic success. He feared that the collapse of the family, if it ever happened, would be the main threat to Singapore’s success.
His Malaysian contemporary, Mahathir Mohamad, went further. In a book written in 1995 with a Japanese politician, Shintaro Ishihara, Dr Mahathir contrasted Asians’ respect for marriage with “the breakdown of established institutions and diminished respect for marriage, family values, elders, and important customs” in the West. “Western societies”, Dr Mahathir claimed, “are riddled with single-parent families… with homosexuality, with cohabitation.” He might well have concluded that the absence of traditional family virtues from the streets of London recently showed the continued superiority of Asia.
Asians, in fact, have several distinct family systems. To simplify: in South Asia it is traditional to have arranged, early marriages, in which men are dominant and the extended family is important. East Asia also has a male-dominated system, but one that stresses the nuclear family more; nowadays it has abandoned arranged marriages. In South-East Asia, women have somewhat more autonomy. But all three systems have escaped many of the social changes that have buffeted family life in the West since the 1960s.
In South Asia and China marriage remains near-universal, with 98% of men and women tying the knot. In contrast, in some Western countries, a quarter of people in their 30s are cohabiting or have never been married, while half of new marriages end in divorce. Marriage continues to be the almost universal setting for child-bearing in Asia: only about 2% of births took place outside wedlock in Japan in 2007. Contrast that with Europe: in Sweden in 2008 55% of births were to unmarried women, while in Iceland the share was 66%.
Most East and South-East Asian countries report little or no cohabitation. The exception is Japan where, among women born in the 1970s, about 20% say they have cohabited with a sexual partner. For Japan, that is a big change. In surveys between 1987 and 2002, just 1-7% of single women said they had lived with a partner. But it is not much compared with America where, according to a 2002 Gallup poll, over half of married Americans between the ages of 18 and 49 lived together before their wedding day. In many Western societies, more cohabitation has offset a trend towards later marriage or higher rates of divorce. That has not happened in Asia.
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. Surveys by Pew Global Research, a social-research outfit in Washington, DC, show that Muslims in South and South-East Asia are more likely than Muslims elsewhere to say that families should choose a woman’s husband for her.

   
Over the hill

Yet, as Ms Hou shows, Asia is changing. Although attitudes to sex and marriage are different from those in the West, the pressures of wealth and modernisation upon family life have been just as relentless. They have simply manifested themselves in different ways. In the West the upshot has been divorce and illegitimacy. In Asia the results include later marriage, less marriage and (to some extent) more divorce. The changes in the West may be more dramatic. But both East and West are seeing big changes in the role of women and traditional family life.
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