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Why Aren't You Married Yet?

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*Yen-Chun Cheryl Chen [2010] is currently a PhD student studying Sociology at the University of Cambridge. Picture credit: Danilo Rizzuti and http://www.freedigitalphotos.net.

After the Chinese New Year, I will officially become a 30-year-old woman. Chinese New Year used to be a fun-filled time: having endless food, visiting relatives, and hopefully, at my age, still getting red envelopes (with money inside, of course!) However, ever since I started to be asked questions like "When are you going to get married?" (after I get my PhD), or "When are you going to finish you PhD?" (you will get a more precise answer from my supervisor), I feel fairly reluctant to see my relatives and less joyful during this festive season. Why has my marital status become a kind of illness for which everyone either feels sympathy or annoyance because of the impression that I am not taking responsibility for my life? With this question in mind, I started my PhD project on investigating Taiwanese people's marital expectations.

Marriage in East Asian societies used to happen at an early age and was universal. Yet, nowadays, marriage tends to occur during an individual's late 20s or early 30s. Last year, the mean age for marriage in Taiwan was 31.8 for males and 29.2 for females (see, I am only a bit above the average!). The delayed timing in marriage contributes largely to the lowest fertility rates among many East Asian societies. We hear people saying that late marriage is due to the fact that women are becoming more economically independent and more individualistic (or selfish in terms of wanting to enjoy their single life without the burden from family for a longer period of time). Yet this only explains a very tiny piece of the whole picture. Looking at the survey results, we found that more than 80% of the population still expects to get married at a certain point in their lives. What is keeping them away or postponing them from doing so is more complicated and results from factors founded in both micro-individual situations and macro-social environments.

People in different age groups provide different reasons for why marriage is not an option for them at that life stage. "Too early" and "still in education" are the two most common answers from individuals in their early 20s. As people move into their late 20s, they start giving responses about their continuing single status which reflect more economic concerns, such as "not having got a stable, long-term job". When they reach their 30s, "having not met someone suitable" takes precedence over the other reasons. These responses depict three important signs of late marriage: first, the expected timing of marriage has been postponed to the late 20s partly due to the prolonged time modern people spend in educational institutions; second, their reasons for not being able to get married change along with the development of different life stages, and third, nowadays it takes longer for young adults to achieve the traditional adulthood markers in terms of attaining economic independence. The term "emerging adulthood" has been coined to describe these younger cohorts, many of whom are stuck in between adolescence and adulthood and struggle to establish their adulthood identities.

Studies on marital timing in the region have so far paid exclusive attention to women's marital timing. Yet gender is like a coin with two sides. When there are women postponing the timing of their marriage, there are going to be men doing the same (this may be different if civil partnership without limitations to just heterosexual couples becomes universal). While scholars have argued that the patriarchal tradition in these societies, which requires women to be submissive to their husband and sacrifice their careers for their families after marriage, has meant many younger women see marriage in an unfavourable light, the economic requirement on men from this traditional ideology has made it equally difficult for men to make the commitment.

Last December, in the space of one month I attended four weddings of friends around my age. This somehow signals that marriage has not been totally abandoned (or I am about the age to get married) but just happens a bit later. Next time, instead of questioning someone about when he or she intends to get married, why not be patient and just wait for their wedding invitations to surprise you or toast to their bravely-chosen forever singleton status?