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Marriages Tick Up in Asia but Long-Term Demographic Challenges Persist

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For the first time in about a decade, the number of marriages in South Korea last year increased from the previous year, according to data revealed by the country’s statistics office on Tuesday. The same thing occurred in China, according to data released earlier this month by the country’s civil affairs ministry.

The upticks were slight: in South Korea, 193,657 couples wedded in 2023, a 1% increase from 2022 and the first increase since 2011; while in China, 7.68 million couples tied the knot by late 2023, up about 847,000 from late 2022, and the first increase since 2013. But while some people may have been hopeful that this apparent shift could turn the tide for each country’s demographic misfortunes, as they suffer from declining birth rates and aging populations, in reality, the data only reinforces a broader downtrend, analysts say.

In South Korea, a government official said in a briefing that couples delaying nuptials due to the COVID-19 pandemic may have caused the rise in marriages in 2023. Meanwhile, independent Chinese demographer He Yafu pointed in a blog post to five reasons marriages have declined over the past decade—a declining youth population, more men than women among the marriage-aged cohort, the average age of first marriages being delayed, marriage costs growing too high, and more young people simply choosing not to get married as attitudes change—all of which persist, and one reason why they rose last year: “Many young people postponed marriage due to the impact of the epidemic from 2020 to 2022. As the epidemic gradually ends, the wedding economy has rebounded significantly.”

Stuart Gietel-Basten, professor of social science and public policy at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, tells TIME that marriage still looks to be on a downward trend in Asia. “What we’ve actually seen is kind of a constant decline, but then that decline was accelerated during COVID,” he says. “It’s not as if there’s been some miracle in policy, or that there’s a big new change that supported couples to get married, or that they’ve put something in the water.”

The governments of South Korea and China, as well as of neighboring countries facing similar demographic issues such as Japan, have been trying to encourage marriages in a bid to lift birth rates and counter the effects of a rapidly aging population. Last year, one region in China offered a reward of 1,000 yuan ($138) for newlywed heterosexual couples if the bride was under 25, in a bid to promote "age-appropriate marriage and childbearing.” In South Korea, which has the lowest birth rate in the world and a population expected to halve by 2100, successive governments have spent some 380 trillion Korean won ($283 billion) over the last 20 years to try to respond to the nation’s aging society and boost fertility rates.

Read More: China Is Desperate to Boost Its Low Birth Rates. It May Have to Accept the New Normal

Gietel-Basten says that “in an arithmetical way,” increasing the number of marriages will also increase the birth rates, assuming married women are more likely to have children than unmarried women. But, “to a degree, this slightly misses the point,” he adds, explaining that a simultaneous trend of women having fewer children, on top of a significant number not having any at all, means that the birth rate will still decline.

Demographers have long attributed the decline of marriage to the lack of appeal of the associated costs surrounding marriage. “It's not just a rejection of marriage. It's not that people don’t want to get married at all,” says Gietel-Basten, “but it’s a rejection of what we call that marriage package.” That includes, he says, social expectations around caring for in-laws, the freedom and autonomy women are expected to give up, and the high costs of child-rearing. As a result, some people are not marrying altogether, as the decadelong data show, while many are putting off getting married until they’re older.

China’s historical census data shows the average age at first marriage in 2010 was 25.75 years old for men and 24 for women. In 2020, that rose to 29.38 years old for men and 27.95 for women. In South Korea, the average marrying age of a man in 2023 was 34 and for a woman was 31.5—compared to 10 years ago, when the average age was 32.2 and 29.6, respectively.

Zheng Mu, assistant professor in the sociology and anthropology department at the National University of Singapore, tells TIME that policymakers have to go beyond simply pushing for more marriages and need to consider the wider, related issues instead. “I think they are still just scratching the surface in comparison to how fundamental, how deep this issue is,” she says. “Until you make people feel really at ease to pursue their life in a relatively autonomous way, I don’t think it would be effective.”

Gietel-Basten argues that instead of trying to undo the effects of a demographic shift, governments must learn to adapt. “We’ve got to stop trying to reverse it. Because it’s very difficult, if not impossible to reverse. This is just the way it is.”

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