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Chinese family demographics change greatly over 70 years

YANG JUHUA and WANG SUSU | 2019-05-30 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

The marriage rate dropped from 9.9 per 1,000 people in 2013 to a five-year low of 7.2 per 1,000 people in 2018, according to the National Bureau of Statistics and the Ministry of Civil Affairs. Photo: XINHUA


Over the past 70 years since the founding of the People’s Republic of China, changes in the economic structure, cultural concepts and demographics have had a large impact on family life. Families at different stages of their life cycle have different demands for public service and social governance. Whether the needs of the family can be satisfied directly affects the well-being of the family ecology. In turn, as families are the atomic units of society, family change can trigger social transformation.

From the perspective of family cycles, this article tries to sort out the transformation of the Chinese family in the past 70 years based on data from the national census, a one-percent population survey and other literature. In the face of modernization, changing perceptions of family and marriage, and low birth rates, the family cycle can be grouped into four stages: formation, expansion and stabilization, contraction and empty nest, and disintegration.


Coupling stage
Following socioeconomic development, family formation has been delayed. However, on the whole, the proportion of bachelors over the age of 35 has not increased significantly in China in 70 years, and the traditional family formation model still dominates.

The average age for first marriage presents an N-shaped growth. The data from the former national family planning commission in 1982 showed that the average age for first marriage for women increased from 18.57 years in 1949 to 19.57 years in 1960, 23.05 years in 1980, and decreased slightly to 22.82 years in 1981. After the reform and opening up, the age of first marriage has steadily increased, reaching 26 in 2015 and rising further in 2018. It can be seen that in 70 years the age of first marriage has increased by almost 10 years due to the improvement of women’s education and economic status.

More and more people stay single before the age of 30. According to the Ministry of Civil Affairs, the proportion of singles in the 25–29 age group accounted for 36.9 percent of total singles in 2017. Nationwide, the age of 30 seems to be the tipping point, at which 95 percent of women end their single lives and start families.


In 70 years, the age gap between first marriage and first birth has been decreasing, despite occasional fluctuation. As it turns out, the expansion of the family has been shortened and the stabilization stage has been prolonged, causing changes in the family structure.

In the early 1980s, the age of first birth in China was about 23–25 years old, and the interval between first marriage and first birth was about 1.50–1.66 years. Between 1980 and 1990, the age interval was shortened. From 1990 to 2010, the interval between first marriage and first birth for the age group under 35 years was less than two years. Perhaps it is the delay in marriage that drives people to have children as soon as possible once they tie the knot. Perhaps unwedded pregnancies are also more common, lowering the gap between first marriages and first births.

Overall, the birth rate has dropped significantly. The crude birth rate dropped from 36.00 per one-thousand people in 1949 to 12.43 per one-thousand people in 2017. The total fertility rate has fallen from more than six children in the average woman’s lifetime in 1949 to less than three children in 1978. In 1990 it hit replacement level fertility (about 2.1), and it has fallen further to 1.6 children today.

Changes in family expansion and stabilization are also closely related to the reduction of family size. In 1947, the family size was 5.35 people, in 1953, less than 4.5 people. Then, the number picked up in 1964. In 1974, the family size reached the highest level since the founding of the PRC, but it was still no more than five. In 1990, for the first time, the family size was less than four. In 2000 it fell to slightly more than 3.4, and then to just 3.1 in 2010 and 2015. In some 70 years, the family size decreased by 31.1 percent, making the present family size the smallest in history.

Since 1982, family forms have become more diverse, but the nuclear family always accounts for about two-thirds of all families, the extended family accounts for about one-fifth, and the single-parent family accounts for less than one-tenth. This not only reveals the important position of the two-generation family in history, but also indicates that though the social transformation has greatly reduced the family size, it has not changed the main form of family, and there is no subversive change in situations when parents live with unmarried children or married children. The coexistence of diversity and stability in residential arrangements is closely related to the changes in structural elements, such as the disintegration and reorganization of marriage and regional population migration.


Empty nest
In the past 70 years, the contraction period of the family was shortened, the empty nest period was prolonged, and the interval between the two stages was shortened or even became overlapped, making the empty nest a common family form for middle-aged and older adults.

The reduction in the number of children leads to early empty nests. If we calculate the average age of first marriage for “post-80s” women aged 25 and men aged 27 in cities and towns, the interval between first marriage and first childbirth is two years. Assuming the only child leaves the family of origin after the age of 18, the parents enter empty nest stage between 45 and 47 and then move on to solitary survivor stage after 15 years. For people born in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, the average age for having an empty nest was 57.5 years, 51.3 years and 44.4 years, meaning that compared with a family formed in the 1960s, a family formed after 1980 entered the empty nest stage about 13 years earlier.

In addition, the proportion of empty nesters has continued to rise. In 1982, empty nest households accounted for 12.64 percent of the total number of elderly households. Empty nest households accounted for 25.8 percent in 1999. In 2016, empty nest households have exceeded 50 percent.
One-child families start the empty nest stage earlier and thus live in it longer. However, it is worth noting that some empty nest families are only theoretical, because children may leave home temporarily. Also, structural or emotional factors may drive children who move out of the parent family to return to the parent family, or the parents may move in with the children. In rural areas, parents and children may live adjacent to each other, which is not a real empty nest situation, so the actual proportion of empty nest families may be lower than in the data.


Solitary survivor
With the improvement of living standards, public health and medical conditions, life expectancy has increased. The aging trend of the population at the macro level is increasingly severe, and the aging at the family level is more evident.

Census data shows that in 1982, the number of people aged 65 and above in a household was just 0.22, but rose to 0.41 in 2010. The number of children aged 0–14 fell from 1.48 in 1982 to 0.51 in 2010. It can be seen that the number of elderly family members nearly doubled, and the number of young children decreased by about two-thirds. In 2000, 2010 and 2015, the total number of households was 340.5 million, 401.5 million and 410.1 million, respectively, according to the one-percent population sample survey. In 2015, more than 100 million households had at least one elderly person aged 65 or above, more than a quarter of all households.

Also, before 1949, the average life expectancy in China was about 35. In 1950, it was about 47, then it grew to 67.9 in 1981. In 2017, the average life expectancy in China reached 77, and even exceeded 80 in some regions. China’s life expectancy has risen by at least 42 years in 70 years. Undoubtedly, the extension of life span has had a great impact on family form and survival, and the time before a family disintegrates has been greatly lengthened.

Though the resilience of Chinese families remains strong, the changes in the new era will indeed pose major challenges to the development of families in the future. The delay of the age of first marriage and first birth means that the formation period and expansion period of the family move backward correspondingly, thus directly reducing the lifetime fertility rate of women, making the family expansion and stabilization period overlap, along with the contraction and empty nest periods.

In order to cope with these challenges, it is necessary to introduce family-friendly support policies for childbearing, childcare and old-age care, so as to meet the shortcomings of public services in the family sector. It is also necessary to define the boundaries of family, government and social responsibility and to clarify the role of the government as the supporter of the family function, so that the family can continue to fulfill its responsibility of promoting individual development and enhancing social harmony and stability in the new era.


Yang Juhua is from the National Academy of Development and Strategy at Renmin University of China; Wang Susu is from the School of Sociology and Population Studies at Renmin University of China.

edited by YANG XUE