No marriage, no kids, yes to pets: The rise of China’s singles economy and what this means for brands

    China’s younger generations are defying societal norms with a surge in solo living, sparking debate on relationships, women's agency and societal expectations.
    China’s younger generations are defying societal norms with a surge in solo living, sparking debates on relationships, women’s agency, and societal expectations. Image: Unsplash
      Published   in Consumer

    At 29 years old, Chinese zillennial Sophia Zhou is an outlier among her friends. Zhou (not her real name) is among what appears to be a shrinking minority of young Chinese who are open to the idea of marriage.

    Most of Zhou’s friends living in Shanghai are more interested in pursuing solo lifestyles (个人生活), building their careers, and engaging in their own hobbies and interests, rather than traditional romantic partnerships, according to Zhou.

    “Many girls in China’s first-tier cities want a man who has more life and job experience,” she says. She adds that it seems as though “people who are in their late 20s and even 30s are still figuring their lives out.”

    In recent years, amid trends like lying flat and full-time children, buzzwords like solo living and “temporary partnership” (搭子文化) — which denote new and non-traditional ways of companionship — have been on the rise.

    “We’re seeing more young people embrace lifestyles that balance individual leisure time with work and what might be considered traditional family obligations,” explains Jacob Cooke, cofounder and CEO of China and Canada-based marketing solutions platform WPIC Marketing & Technologies. “This demographic is spending more on items that complement new lifestyle trends and values, such as rising rates of pet ownership and participation in leisure sports, as well as increased awareness about sustainability, self-care, and healthy living.”

    In a country that has seen a continued decline in marriage and birth rates in recent decades, young Chinese women and men are increasingly opting for solo lifestyles — an alternative that was once unheard of in collectivist China. In 2020, the population of unmarried persons between the ages of 20 and 49 reached 134 million, according to researchers.

    Echoing a movement that has been on the rise around the world, particularly in East Asian nations like South Korea and Japan, a growing number of young Chinese are choosing to live alone, stay unmarried, and engage in solo lifestyles.

    Image: Unsplash
    Image: Unsplash

    Risks and rewards of flying solo#

    Amid the risk of demographic collapse, a rapidly expanding elderly population, and other issues, China’s younger generations face several challenges in the future as they grapple with some of their own existential dilemmas.

    “Some young people in China choose solo living as a preferred lifestyle choice, which celebrates autonomy and mobility; others opt into it because they don’t see better futures in the demographic and economic lottery,” says Tristan McInnis, managing partner at the Shanghai chapter of strategy and insights agency Inner Chapter.

    Is being single a choice or something that is forced? McInnis questions. “And if it’s a choice, is that something rooted out of a positive orientation like their desire to pursue goals that matter to them or not?” he says. “For those who are forced, either out of circumstances like lack of social mobility or societal norms about standards for choosing a partner, it does play into these negative feelings about their future outlook.”

    The issue also highlights the growing tension between the individual versus the collective in a developing nation, according to McInnis. Chinese society traditionally relied on family for elder care, contrasting with welfare economies where the state assumes greater responsibility.

    “While the government has been trying to create a ‘carrot’ in terms of policy support for families with children, it’s entirely possible that they opt for a ‘stick’ approach in the future to disincentivize those who go without — something like a ‘singles tax’ even.”

    So far, the nation has taken to encouraging marriage and even childbirth, with the launch of its “new era” marriage and childbearing pilot project across 20 Chinese cities. Additionally, alongside cash incentives and other “rewards” for nuptials, marriage itself may no longer be the precondition for having children, as provinces like Sichuan take small steps in offering benefits to single mothers.

    But such moves may not be enough to sway the country’s younger generations.

    Ultimately, China’s “solo lifestylers” will grow into the world’s largest “senior single economy’,” says McInnis. By 2035, China will be home to 400 million people aged 60 and above, comprising 30 percent of its total population. “It will have profound implications on social structures and the services businesses need to provide around them.”

    Image: Unsplash
    Image: Unsplash

    The future is female#

    “Women, in particular, are more self-sufficient now,” says Zhou, citing the importance of China’s she-economy — where the economic influence of female consumers is now felt more than ever. “You don’t need a guy to provide for you. You can do anything by yourself or with your girlfriends. You don’t really need to marry someone that you don’t like, just for their resources or wealth.”

    While feminism is still not widely accepted and subject to censorship across social media platforms, Chinese women are expressing empowerment through other means.

    In addition to their growing earning power, shifting gender norms, the influence of pop culture, major brand campaigns, greater exposure to the world through travel, and a greater emphasis on self-expression and individualism are some of the factors contributing to Chinese women opting for solo lifestyles.

    Women are increasingly choosing to stay single, explains Yaling Jiang, founder of research and strategy consultancy ApertureChina and trends newsletter Following The Yuan.

    “Most Chinese men have no reason to shy away from marriage; the societal values are always in favor of them,” says Jiang. “In a patriarchal society like China, women were traditionally expected to have children, raise children, do chores, and tolerate gender inequality.”

    Nowadays, women, especially those in first-tier cities realize this doesn’t have to be the case, explains Jiang. “Marriage doesn’t benefit them unless they find men whom they truly like, who also share the same values.”

    The prickly issue of the cost of childcare and other expenses is a major deterrent, according to McInnis from Inner Chapter. “The cost of living, especially related to childcare, education, and healthcare increases, has impacted people’s decisions to delay or decide against having children.”

    Figures released by Chinese think tank YuWa Population Research Institute in March show that the national average to raise a child in China until the age of 18 was $74,000 (538,000 RMB), or 6.3 times China’s GDP per capita — the second highest in the world behind South Korea, which is currently facing its own population crisis.

    Image: Unsplash
    Image: Unsplash

    Implications of China’s singles economy#

    Ultimately, the rise of China’s solo lifestyle movement is part of a natural progression evolving alongside the nation’s economic development, as similarly observed in other regions of the world, according to experts like Jiang.

    The latest trends show that China’s youth are increasingly open to exploring new lifestyles and ways of consumption.

    With more young consumers delaying marriage and raising children, that means they have more time to pursue hobbies and hang out with friends — and more money to spend on those areas of life, according to Cooke from WPIC Marketing & Technologies.

    “We’re seeing young Chinese consumers opt for trendy niche brands that allow them to express their individuality, instead of mega brands,” he says. “In terms of luxury and conspicuous consumption, we see that reflected in the rise of quiet luxury — with more subtle, refined expressions of luxury becoming more popular than flashy, mega-brand luxury items.”

    As we have reported, these areas of consumption reflect the growing needs of China’s women consumers especially.

    “Women are more educated and more liberated now,” says Zhou. “They want to focus on themselves.”

    • Chinese millennials, zillennials and youth, are increasingly favoring solo lifestyles over traditional marriages.
    • Buzzwords like "solo living" and "temporary partnership" are gaining popularity, reflecting the evolution of shifting norms and broader societal trends away from traditional confucian family units.
    • China is now home to a significant population of unmarried individuals aged 20 to 49, having reached 134 million in 2020.
    • Alongside rising costs of living, young Chinese, especially women in the nation, face existential dilemmas, balancing autonomy, individual agency and societal expectations.
    • Brands must adapt to these societal shifts by celebrating and acknowledging consumers' individuality, and evolving tastes in more subtle, refined types of luxury.
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