#14. LONG VIEW: What's Changed in China's Marriage Patterns?
Reading Time: 5 min
Welcome back after the holidays! This is LONG VIEW, one of two of our weekly columns. We are a pair of finance professionals with boots on the ground in China, each with 10 years of experience in the country. If you like what we are doing please subscribe 👇 and share it with a colleague or friend.
Hypergamy: What Is It?
The Reversal of a Trend
China has experienced unprecedented economic growth since its reforms in the 1980s. But how has this impacted its marriage patterns?
1. Hypergamy: What Is It?
Hypergamy is a fancy word for the tendency in humans for men to mate across and down the socio-economic hierarchy, whereas women mate across and up. Hypergamy can be mediated through education, age, or general socio-economic status.
You’ll notice that past a certain point on the image above, women will not partner with males of sufficiently low status. One of the reasons for why the human species evolved so rapidly is precisely due to, not just natural selection pressures which impacts all species, but to female selection. In comparison, chimpanzee females are non-discriminatory maters. More on the biology here.
Women are choosy of their mates along a variety of dimensions. Most notably, women prefer men with a higher capacity to: (A) generate wealth; (B) share it. This is different to men just possessing wealth because that’s ephemeral and that inheritance can be gone tomorrow. More on these studies here.
Hypergamy is a strong enough phenomenon to be observed across cultures, including arguably the most gender-equal society in the world — Norway:
We have outlined theoretical foundations for the existence of hypergamy and we have presented overwhelming empirical evidence that hypergamy is an important feature of mating patterns in Norway. (Source: “The Economics of Hypergamy”, Almås et al. 2019)
2. The Reversal of a Trend
So what’s happened in China? Hypergamy has made a U-turn.
In the pre-reform [China] regime, almost all domains of life, including employment, consumption, housing, and even family life, were largely regulated by the state in order to operationalise Communist egalitarian ideology. Consequently, inequality was low and economic expectations were highly limited. However, the reform has dramatically altered the context. […]
[After the reforms] while women may want to marry older men in response to their occupational downgrades, men may want to settle down later given the labor and marriage market competition they face.
[…] We tested the plausible ‘‘economic pressure’’ explanation that the post-1990s reform era environment – with its intensified labor market pressure, rising consumerism, and skyrocketing costs of living – acted to promote marriages of older men to younger women on the basis of a need or preference for status hypergamy. Simply put, a renewed interest in status hypergamy is thought to be driven by men’s increasing economic pressures to support family consumption and women’s downgraded labor market prospects.
In particular, given women’s educational advances in reform-era China, status hypergamy is more difficult to achieve among like-aged men and women, who may have similar educational attainment and be at similar career points. Our tests of the relative impact of age and education on status hypergamy support the premise that age has begun to substitute for education as a proxy for men’s higher status [emphasis added]. In this sense, our analysis found the closing of the gender gap in educational attainment to also be a plausible causal mechanism of the reversal in age homogamy in the post- 1990s reform era.
2. So What?
The point is that it’s possible to quantify economic pressure across societies and time. We find that pretty neat. Others may not.
As a rule of thumb then, the larger the prevalence of hypergamy in a society (as exhibited in the husband-wife age gap), the greater the economic pressures (on both genders). It takes time for males to establish themselves in a society after reaching adulthood — education, skill acquisition, work experience all play into this. The more years it takes to build enough competence before being able to provide a surplus for dependents in a complex society, the higher this measure of economic pressure. We write “dependents” because no matter how you slice it, childbearing is a prolonged period of dependency for both female and child in terms of resources needed. Given that on average a single income per family isn’t sufficient even with mild hypergamy, this leads to strains on and engenders new dynamics in the whole family unit.
In the case of China, this trend reversed around 1995. Arguably, it’s likely that this is one of the undercurrents that’s cutting across various themes in the country, declining birth rates and unmarried low status males being just two of them.
Thank you for reading. If you like what we are doing please subscribe or share it with a colleague or friend.
China Charts Team