Zhang Peijuan, 58, scans the thousands of young men and women gathered in Shanghai’s Expo Park, looking for an eligible bachelor.
“He should have a college degree, be about 1.75 meters tall, and property is a must,” says the curly-haired, retired researcher, who is shopping for a husband for her daughter and carries three photos of the 28-year-old in her handbag. “Young people these days work too hard. When I see someone I think my daughter may like, I approach him for his contact.”
Zhang was among 38,000 singles and concerned parents at Shanghai’s largest matchmaking event last weekend, as the city seeks to revive a birth rate that has collapsed to almost half the level in Japan. China’s richest city, leading financial center and largest port will see marriage registrations fall 17 percent this year, according to official estimates.
“Shanghai is at the frontier of these broad social changes and this is what is happening across urban China,” said Wang Feng, Beijing-based director for the Brookings-Tsinghua Center for Public Policy. “We will see it spread.”
China faces an urban shift that will shrink the pool of factory workers who sustain economic growth and expand the ranks of the elderly, pushing up health-care and pension costs. Higher education levels, a focus on careers, and greater expectations are causing city-dwellers to marry later and have fewer children.
The falling birth rate, exacerbated by China’s three-decade-old one-child policy, will cut the number of 15- to 24-year-olds, the mainstay of factories, by 27 percent to 164 million by 2025, the United Nations estimates. In that time, those over the age of 65 will surge 78 percent to 195 million.
Shanghai’s fertility rate -- the number of children the average woman in the city will bear over her lifetime -- was 0.79 in the year ended October 2010, about half the national level, government statistics show. That compares with the 1.42 rate for Japan and 2.08 in the U.S.
China’s labor force is already shrinking. The number of people aged between 15 and 64 declined by 0.1 percentage point last year to 74.4 percent of the population, the first contraction in 10 years, according to the official Xinhua News Agency.
That’s likely to increase costs for companies in China, deterring investment and weighing on an economy that may expand at the slowest pace in 13 years in 2012. Wages for urban workers at private enterprises climbed 12 percent last year to 24,556 yuan ($3,852), the National Bureau of Statistics said on May 29.
A survey released this week showed more than a fifth of European Union companies in China said they are considering shifting investments out of the country to developing economies including those in Southeast Asia and South America, due in part to rising wage bills. A separate survey of their U.S. counterparts showed two-thirds of respondents said price pressures from labor and inflation were increasing.
In Shanghai the number of couples tying the knot in the first four months of the year fell 10 percent to 41,282, according to the Shanghai Civil Affairs Bureau. Registrations for 2012 are forecast to fall to 120,000 pairs.
Better education has given more women the desire to choose their own partner, said Juemin Zhou, director of the Shanghai Matchmaking Trade Association, the main organizer of the event.
“In the past, women were matchmade by their parents,” said Zhou. “Then, it didn’t matter how old you were, or if your partner was blind in one eye, you still had to get married. Now, if you don’t find someone suitable, you just don’t settle.”
Higher learning breeds higher expectations, and the group of well-educated, older, unmarried women has swelled in the last two years, Zhou said.
The number of single Shanghai women in their late 20s tripled in the last 15 years, to almost one in three, according to the Brookings-Tsinghua Center for Public Policy. Nearly 40 percent of college-educated women between 25 and 34 in the city were unmarried in 2005, the center said. That’s compared with 6 percent for women with only junior-school education.
“Both men and women tend to look 45 degrees upwards when searching for a partner,” said Gong Haiyan, co-chief executive officer of China’s largest online dating agency, Jiayuan.com, with 62 million members. “Everyone thinks he deserves someone better than he actually is.”
When Gong founded the website nine years ago, female customers listed owning a house as one of the nice-to-haves. Now it’s almost the main criteria, she said.
“The first thing they look for is if you have a decent job, what is your salary like, if you have an apartment,” said Hansen Huang, 34, from Anhui province, who has worked in Shanghai’s information technology industry for 12 years. “Women are looking for a partner who can provide so they can live relatively comfortably.”
With a friendly smile, checked shirt and glasses, Huang came to the fair with a friend “to give myself a chance,” he said with a chuckle. As he talked about the kind of girl he wanted -- 24 to 28 years old and 1.6 to 1.7 meters tall -- two sets of parents came up to speak to him.
Like Huang, many in the crowd are from other parts of China, a reflection of how Shanghai and other urban centers are making up for the decline in births. While Shanghai’s population has risen 38 percent to 23 million in the decade to 2010, the number of migrants has almost tripled to about 9 million, accounting for most of the increase, according to the last national census.
About 2,000 couples were successfully matched at last year’s event, according to Zhou. This year, parents studied profiles of single men and women in dozens of matchmaking booths around the park, one decorated with pink feather boas. A typical poster read: 1.67 meter female working in a research field, born in 1983, looking for 1.77 meter male born after 1977.
To improve visibility in the throng, one father holds up a badminton racket with his daughter’s details on a piece of paper fastened to the top, and a profile of her ideal mate below.
While some women look to marry later, social expectations for a younger bride remain. A survey by Jiayuan.com in Shanghai this year categorized women over 29 as “leftovers.”
“Women can be very picky when they’re young,” said Huang. “But if you don’t sell when it commands the highest value, you may miss the golden opportunity. There are so many women for us men to choose from. We really have no reason to pick a 28-year-old when you can find a 26-year-old.”