Singles, or more concisely, unmarried people, are a growing global demographic. In the US alone, 38% of adults aged 25–54 live alone, with single men outnumbering single women. This trend ties in greatly with a globally declining marriage rate. While the socioeconomic implications of being single are often negative, with singles usually earning lower incomes and having less educational credentials than their married or live-in counterparts, this does not necessarily constitute a global standard.
In China, debates over the socioeconomic implications of a “singles’ economy” have not reached a consensus, but there is an interesting, if not contradictory, correlation. The perception of Chinese singles having a more negative influence on the economy is prevalent, dictated largely by cultural norms, which informs economic decision making. For instance, many shun those who avoid societal and familial responsibilities and link declining marriage rates with a low rate of population growth.
Though, in reality, the consumption habits of singles, especially those from a higher wealth bracket, serve as a boon to the industries in which they spend and, therefore, to economic growth. In fact, this is most clearly evidenced by singles having a dedicated shopping holiday, known as Singles’ Day, or Double 11. To fill the void of a romantic partner, singles spent an eye-watering US$84 billion on Alibaba and US$54 billion on JD during the recent November 2021 holiday. Despite the cultural negatives associated with singles in China, their consumption habits make them a demographic to watch.
Why Is China’s Single Population Rising?
Singles are a growing demographic in China. In 2018, the number of singles in China reached 240 million, with more than 77 million of those singles living alone. That number is estimated to reach 92 million in 2022, particularly given a rising divorce rate in China. In 2019, according to statistics from the Ministry of Civil Affairs, China registered 9.2 million marriages, and 4.7 million divorces. A rising divorce rate, correlated with a lower fertility rates, has caused the government to intervene.
A government-instituted cooling-off policy, a civil law which requires couples wanting a divorce to wait 30 days before a request is approved, took effect on January 1, 2021. Following the 30-day waiting period, applications for couples that fail to appear at two appointments are automatically cancelled. Overall, the policy has proved effective, with Q1 divorces declining by approximately 70%. Whether this law will have lasting influence on couples wanting divorce remains to be seen.
Who Are China’s Singles?
Broadly speaking, there are two categories of people in China that are generally correlated with being single. These are either the elderly or those in their 20s and 30s. According to the National Bureau of Statistics, 60% of those aged 80 or older and 50% of those 30 or younger were single. As for gender, men tend to be more commonly single. The legacy of China’s one-child policy and a traditionally-accepted preference for male children has driven a national population crisis in which Guānggùn (光棍, or “bare branches”), a term reserved for single men who do not marry, far outnumber the much-maligned Shèngnǚ (剩女, or “leftover women”).
In terms of educational achievement, 42% of all people with a master’s degree, 40% of those with a bachelor’s degree, and 38% of people not having attended university are single. Breaking this statistic down to gender, there is an inverse correlation between women with advanced degrees and being single. The higher the educational achievement for women, the more likely they are to remain single. In fact, the whole concept of a “singles’ economy” was initially geared toward single women due to them forming the single demographic bracket with the highest amount of disposable income.
Catering to a Singles’ Economy
With single men outnumbering single women, the marketing of a “single’s economy” has adapted accordingly. Single men, a by-product of the one-child policy, are more prevalent in the countryside where lower education levels amid higher familial responsibilities may necessitate them staying close to home. More broadly, however, singles are likely to be more highly educated, have greater purchasing power, and more expensive spending habits. This is particularly true of the 7 million single urban women between 25–34, who are among the largest contributors to China’s growth. Businesses are now adapting business models and creating new models based on the assumption of singles’ spending and consuming habits. It has also stimulated growth amongst dating app services, wellness and fitness brands, as well as in the pet supplies industry.
What Are China’s Singles Buying?
While singles purchase many of the same goods as other demographic groups in China, the rising number of singles have particularly lifted a subgroup of industries.
Dating apps in China have always formed a significant growth market for singles, especially as domestic dating apps gain traction. China’s domestic dating app industry is estimated to reach a total market value of US$1 billion in 2021. Momo and Tantan are the most used dating apps in China, with Momo reaching 33 million active monthly users and Tantan at 360 active monthly users. In 2018, as Chinese dating apps began to consolidate, Momo continued on to acquire Chinese Tinder app Tantan in a deal worth approximately US$600 million. Over a third of dating app users were born between 1995–2000’s, and dating app use in general has spiked at a 38% compounded annual growth rate from 2017–2019.
Wellness and Nutrition
Wellness is an umbrella term that encompasses emotional, mental, nutritional, physical, and spiritual self-care. The industry has a global value of over US$1 trillion, while China’s wellness industry in particular has surged to an estimated valuation of US$70 billion in 2020. Singles have formed a key demographic for the industry as they attempt to shed the negative cultural implications of single life through social images of a healthy, holistic lifestyle.
Holistic health, as a concept, has a long history of importance in China; the pandemic has simply accelerated a spike within these existing trends. For example, China saw domestic fitness app usage increase by 12% in the first quarter of 2020, when the lockdown period began. Keep, a fitness app that provides online fitness training programs, was the first Chinese fitness app to reach unicorn status at over 200 million users.
Interest in nutrition has also spiked. In the first quarter of 2020, Alibaba platforms saw an increase of 16% in sales of health food products to an industry tune of US$784 billion. This marks a divergence from historic industry trends in which Chinese consumers have consistently been willing to pay higher prices for organic food products.
More than just a “leftover” portion of the population, China’s singles wield enormous spending power. While industries like dating apps and health and wellness are direct beneficiaries from this demographic, other industries can also cash in on this growing market. As the number of singles in China continues to rise from a multitude of societal and socioeconomic factors, retailers in China would be wise to keep this group in mind.