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Changes in matching patterns in first marriages over 40 years

LIANG YING | 2018-07-19 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

The age and education matching patterns of Chinese first married couples have remained relatively stable over 40 years.


Matching patterns in marriage refer to the compatibility of husbands and wives in terms of individual and familial social and economic conditions, such as age, education, income, occupation and financial status. Among them, marital age and education level are two basic indicators. Studies at home and abroad have shown that both marital age and educational background tend to be homogeneous in marriages, meaning that, most unmarried men and women choose their spouses from groups that are similar to them.

In modern society, marriage is generally conducted under the free will of both parties. However, these factors such as social norms, structure, class and institutional arrangements, as well as the regional and cultural constraints all have an effect in marriages. Therefore, age and education matching patterns, to a degree, reflect the cultural and social characteristics of marriage within a certain period and region, and tend to be relatively stable.

Drawing upon the 2014 first-time-ever tracking survey data provided by the National Health Commission, the article analyzes the matching patterns and changes in age and education of couples 18–59 years of age across nearly 40 years, in order to reveal elements of people’s first marriages throughout China.


‘Older husband, younger wife’
Data shows that the mainstream marital age pattern of Chinese first married couples in recent 40 years is still the traditional pattern of “an older husband and a younger wife.” In any given period, these families account for 60 percent and above of total marriage registration, “same age” marriage accounts for 20 percent, while “younger husband and older wife” takes up less than 20 percent. In addition, the similarity and homogeneity of marriage age of urban couples are slightly higher than that of rural couples.

From the perspective of marriage age differences, the fertility rate sampling survey in 1982, in 1987 and census data in 1990 provide the following information.

The age difference of 60-70 percent of first married couples falls in a range in which at one end, the husband is one year younger than the wife, and at the other end, the husband is four years older than the wife. The 2014 tracking data reveals similar results. Nearly 60 percent of first marriages fall within the aforementioned age difference. The urban ratio is higher than it is in rural areas. At the same time, the percentage of husbands who are three years younger than their wives is lower than that of husbands who are eight years older than their wives.

In any given time, the “older husband, younger wife” marriages see the average age difference of rural and urban couples linger between three and four years. In the “younger husband, older wife” families, the average age difference of newly married couples in rural and urban areas remains stable at about two years. In addition, there was a significant correlation between the degree of education and the age difference of first marriages. As the level of education increases, the marriage age difference tends to decrease.


Match in education
Education is one of the most important indexes to study marriage homogeneity and heterogeneity. Homogeneous marriage refers to marriage in the same class or group, whereas heterogeneous marriage refers to the marriage across different social classes and groups, usually in the form of “higher educational background of husband and lower of wife” and the other way around “lower educational background of husband and higher of wife.” 

In modern society, the importance of familial social and economic conditions has gradually weakened in choosing a partner, and the autonomy of marriage has increased significantly. As a result, the educational compatibility of spouses seems more important in marriages. Nevertheless, the tracking data show that on the whole, education matching still takes the form of “higher educational background of husband and lower of wife.”

Across different periods, the homogeneity of first married couples has been gradually rising over time, and in heterogeneous marriages, the traditional pattern of “higher educational background of husband and lower of wife” shows a trend of gradual decline. The advent of nine-year compulsory education, along with rising attendance at colleges and universities and the influence of factors such as women’s rising economic and social status and level of education, the differences in the levels of education between urban and rural marriage couples is shrinking, probably causing the increase in homogeneous marriages and the decline of traditional gradient matching patterns.

In this light, the article applies the USES logarithmic linear model to test the hypothesis. The results show that since the 1980s, in both urban and rural areas, eligible bachelors and unmarried women are more likely to choose a spouse who has a similar educational background to them.

At the same time, in Chinese first marriages, the proportion of couples from different educational backgrounds is dropping, which means that the possibility of a woman choosing a husband who has a higher level of education than herself is less likely. It is possible to find someone with an education level one level higher, but there is rarely a huge gap in terms of education. In the meantime, with the improvement of education level and socioeconomic status, women are becoming more independent, and their propensity to choose partners from a lower educational background is decreasing.


Uncertainties prevail
As time passes, the matching pattern of age and education in Chinese families remains relatively stable, but uncertainties prevail. Will the tendency toward similarity and homogeneity in marriage continue to enhance? Will “younger husband, older wife” and “lower educational background of husband and higher of wife” become the norm?

In fact, the matching process itself is the process of the social structural self-construction and reproduction. In marriage, are people inclined to maintain homogeneity and similarity, or to break down barriers between different social classes and groups? In theory, with the development of social modernization, marriage autonomy and individualism enhance, then institutional influence and utilitarianism weaken. In the end, marriage is more of a choice of love, with an emphasis on emotional companionship. In turn, barriers between social class, community and groups will gradually be broken, social openness further strengthened and the trend of the homogeneous marriage will become less obvious.

However, the current research shows that homogenous marriage has not weakened but gradually strengthened in modern marriages. On the other hand, non-traditional marriage patterns, such as “younger husband, older wife” show an upward trend over the years. Though the pattern marks an upward trend in the 1990s, after entering the 21st century, the fluctuations are stable, indicating that people have not changed their traditional views.

The stability of age and education matching patterns shows that the influence of social and cultural concept on marriage is a slow and gradual process, thus changes are also relatively slow to unfold. Even so, there is no denying that, with the advancement of modernization and urbanization in China, marriage patterns will be more diversified and personalized. Non-traditional marriage in heterogeneous marriage will be more common.

Under such circumstances, China is troubled with a particular marriage phenomenon—coexistence of “leftover men” in the countryside and villages and “leftover women” in cities. In rural areas, men with less education face difficulties in choosing a wife. In cities and towns, some women with a higher degree of education also face difficulties in choosing a husband.

To address this problem, the government should continue to improve the higher education development, tackle inadequate and imbalance educational resources distribution, narrow the gender gap between urban and rural areas, to ensure the fair and equal education for all. At the same time, our society should show more respect and tolerance toward non-traditional marriages. Both will help to ease the pressure of finding a partner who fulfills the stereotypical requirements and change the long-term passive unmarried state of singles, in order to promote harmonious families and society.


Liang Ying is from the China Population and Development Research Center.

(edited by YANG XUE)