The decline of Asian marriage

From The Economist:

… marriage is changing fast in East, South-East and South Asia, even though each region has different traditions. The changes are different from those that took place in the West in the second half of the 20th century. Divorce, though rising in some countries, remains comparatively rare. What’s happening in Asia is a flight from marriage.

This seems to be anecdotally true among my circle of acquaintances in India.  The signif other and I know a fair number of successful and single / divorced Indian women in their early- to mid-30s.  This phenomenon seems more observable in Mumbai than in Delhi.  There are a number of reasons for this.  First, it’s simply easier to live comfortably as a single woman in Mumbai.  Fewer men are going to harass you on the road.  There will be fewer nosy numbers wondering why you are not married and imagining the most titillating reasons for your not doing so.  It is easier and safer to travel late at night.  There are many support groups for single women.  And so on …

We also know a fair number of single guys of the same age.  There are two more traditional factors at work here.  First, most of these guys feel that they have not established themselves professionally.  Second, they are not in long-term relationships, where the signif other might push towards a formal connubial connection.

So far, the trend has not affected Asia’s two giants, China and India [except, as I argue, in Bombay]. But it is likely to, as the economic factors that have driven it elsewhere in Asia sweep through those two countries as well; and its consequences will be exacerbated by the sex-selective abortion practised for a generation there. By 2050, there will be 60m more men of marriageable age than women in China and India.

This signifies huge social problems in the future.  A cohort of semi-educated, perhaps semi-employed single men can only cause problems.  (It’s likely that male singlehood will concentrate at the lower rungs of society because it’s these guys who will be less competitive in the marriage market.)  Those energies will be easily channeled by populist political forces.  We can expect a surge in right-wing discourse, and perhaps outward aggression.

The former will manifest in the creation of an internal ‘other.’  Extrapolating from current trends, we may expect increasing religious friction nationwide, increasing regional parochialism where locals fight to protect “local” jobs from outsiders, and an increase in class conflict, as the elites struggle to keep these centrifugal forces from causing societal fissures that weaken their grip on power and its economic levers.

Outward aggression will serve the opposite purpose.  It will act as the valve atop a pressure cooker, as the resentments of the single male cohort will be channeled against external enemies.  Brinksmanship will be necessary to keep these energies directed outwards.  Given that both Indian and Chinese will face these problems, we may expect a rapid escalation of frictions between these two, as well as against their neighbors.  So here, we face a paradox, where to keep a country internally stable, it is necessary to increase external aggression.  But this may only be a short-term solution, as it is possible that the external aggression leads to war, which will lead to different internal stresses.

In the long term, these tendencies may be dissipated through a reversal of a generation-long policy of female infanticide.  This will require a change in national incentives, where the girl child is no longer looked upon as a liability, but rather as an asset.  There have been steps in this direction already, such as the illegalization of dowry and the entry of females into the workplace.  The latter, as already discussed, creates its own set of problems.  It reduces the set of women seeking marriage, and increases the set of involuntary male singles.

But this is hardly likely to help the lost generation of male singles.  The interim solution would require keeping this mass quiescent.  Biologically, we primed towards sexual access and propagation of our genetic line.  It is to facilitate this access that males seek status, power, money and other signifiers that a pair-seeking female might seek. Keeping the mass quiescent would require facilitating their attainment of these signifiers.  The attainment would increase their likelihood of regular sexual access, but perhaps more importantly, would increase their stake in the existing status quo, and thus make them less likely foment actions against the status quo.  Job creation would help, as well as other mechanisms that enmesh them in the societal web.  It is important to ensure that familial ties remain strong.  A man with filial responsibilities towards an elder parent is less likely to jeopardize his opportunities to support the elder.  Concurrently, quiescence would also be facilitated if the man would have some sort of sexual access.  The obvious solution is a legalization and destigmatization of prostitution.  The reason for this is that in the Indian context at least, regular sexual access is often predicated upon marriage.


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