All this grand theorizing was not remotely what Sabrina, a slender 26-year-old with sexy librarian glasses, wanted to hear. "I wish she had given more practical advice about how to enlarge my social circle," she whispered to me. Sabrina was there because she truly wanted to get married, and by her own anxious calculation, she feared she had about one year left. She had a graduate degree from a good university, held a respectable job in marketing, and was reasonably attractive. It had never occurred to her that finding an appropriate partner would be a struggle. Did I know any unmarried men? she asked. And if so, I should probably tell them she is just 24.
IN 2006, CHINA'S Cosmopolitan ran the headline, "Welcome to the Age of the Leftover Ladies." One might expect the magazine to exaggerate women's angst to peddle copies, but the notion that marriage is fundamentally changing in China is borne out by the numbers: Women in urban China are marrying later, and the most educated marry latest -- or, increasingly, not at all.
According to an old proverb, "The emperor's daughter need never fret about finding a husband." But Wang Feng, a sociologist and director of the Brookings-Tsinghua Center for Public Policy, is eager to explain why the old legend just isn't true: "I've checked, and daughters of the imperial family actually had trouble getting married. They tended to wed much later," he told me.
It just so happens that with China's economic boom, more and more women are now sharing the dilemma of the emperors' daughters. In 1982, just 5 percent of urban Chinese women ages 25 to 29 were unmarried, according to Wang. By 1995, that percentage had doubled. By 2008, it had nearly tripled. Most of these women will eventually marry, yet the percentage of women in their 30s who are single, though relatively small, is also multiplying quickly: In 1995, just 2 percent of urban Chinese women ages 30 to 34 were unmarried. By 2008, 6 percent were.
Tellingly, the least likely to marry are the most educated. In 2005 fully 7 percent of 45-year-old Shanghai women with college degrees had never married, according to Wang's research. "That's a harbinger of what's going to happen in other places [in China] for more educated women," he told me. "It's a sharp departure from before, from near-universal female marriage." Indeed, there's a common joke that there are three genders in China: men, women, and women with Ph.D.s. Men marry women, and women with Ph.D.s don't marry.
But it's not just China. In many East Asian countries, women, especially the best-educated top-earners now thronging the cities, are increasingly rejecting the institution of marriage altogether. The Economist reported last year that roughly a third of Japanese women in their early 30s and more than 20 percent of Taiwanese women in their late 30s remained unmarried; not more than half those women will ever tie the knot. In Singapore, 27 percent of college-educated 40- to 44-year-old women were single. There's little reason to suspect that China, which is still 49 percent rural, won't evolve in a similar direction.
The geopolitical stakes are high for a region home to more than one-fifth of humanity and the factory floor of the global economy. Most East Asian countries, including China, have invested little in creating a social safety net; per tradition, children are expected to care for aging parents. But China's economic miracle has brought rising income levels and city skylines -- as well as rising marriage ages and divorce rates, even as the one-child policy has driven down fertility. (In fact, childbearing across East Asia has plunged since the 1960s, from 5.3 children per woman to 1.6 children today.) So as the region modernizes and struggles to create First World health-care and retirement systems, fewer and fewer young workers will be there to pick up the tab to support the elderly. TVs, iPhones, and tennis shoes -- all now made in China -- could become much more expensive. And East Asia's humming factories could lose their competitive edge.
The Chinese government has undoubtedly seen this writing on the wall, as Leta Hong Fincher, a contributor to Ms. magazine and a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at Tsinghua University, told me. Why else, she asks, would the government-backed All-China Women's Federation take pains to conduct an exhaustive, 30,000-household survey asking about attitudes toward sheng nu? "This derogatory term has been aggressively disseminated by the Chinese government," she points out. According to a state media report on the survey, "See What Category of 'Leftover' You Belong To," the All-China Women's Federation assigned young single women such hapless labels as "leftover fighters" (ages 25 to 27), "the ones who must triumph" (ages 28 to 30), and "master class of leftover women" (35 and over). The takeaway: Get worried, and get married. Or, as Fincher wrote for Ms.: "If you want to stand a snowball's chance in hell of ever getting married in this country, don't demand too much from your man."