Changing Families in Contemporary Taiwan

Written by Yen-hsin Alice Cheng.

Image Credit: P1130529 by Chester/Flickr, license CC BY-SA 2.0

Shifting family forms often go hand in hand with economic development and rapid social changes, and Taiwan is no exception. Since the latter half of the twentieth century, families and households in Taiwan have become more diversified following Taiwan’s industrialization and later transition into a post-industrialized society. Changing marriage, cohabitation, divorce, and childbearing patterns are the main drivers that have transformed Taiwan from a universal marriage and high-fertility regime into a low-fertility regime with family diversity and rising lifelong singlehood.

Changing Marriage and Divorce 

Like most of its East Asian neighbours, lifelong singlehood used to be rare in Taiwan. However, the rising status of women that comes with educational expansion and economic independence has substantially changed the universal marriage regime in Taiwan—the share of never-married women in their late forties increased from less than 3% to 17% between 1975 and 2019. In addition to rising celibacy, the likelihood of marriage has also changed across educational levels. In the past, better-educated women were significantly less likely to get married. Nevertheless, a reversal in educational differentials has taken place. For women, between 2000 and 2010, it has shifted from negative to positive. Concerning divorce, in relation to both sexes, it has also moved from positive to negative gradients. In other words, less-educated adults now have a lower chance of marriage and a higher chance of divorce. This is closely linked with economic restructuring and changing gender relations in a post-industrial context, where the socially disadvantaged are struggling to maintain their economic viability in a rapidly changing world. Unstable economic standing and the prevalence of more traditional gender role values among less-educated men have both made them less likely to enter marriage and more likely to experience union dissolution. Moreover, rising divorce rates among the less educated also lead to more children living in households with lower parental involvement, particularly in lone-father households. This is due to an increased number of disadvantaged single-father families and the fact that their parent-child activities and parental awareness are lower than single-mother or married-father families. Overall, expanding social disparities in family behaviours between the better and less educated appear to be the new social reality in contemporary Taiwan.

Family Diversity: Cohabitation and Same-Sex Marriage

Apart from shifting marriage and divorce patterns, new forms of unions have emerged over the past decades. Cohabitation, though still relatively less common than what is observed in Western developed societies, has been steadily increasing in Taiwan. In 1998, roughly 10% of women born between the 1940s and 1970s had cohabited. This figure increased to 25-35% for those born between the 1960s and 1990s in 2012. The proportions of women aged 20-50 who entered cohabitation with a marriage plan have decreased from nearly 70% in 1998 to only 30-50% in 2012, indicating that cohabiting unions have gradually transformed from a precursor to marriage to an alternative union type in recent years. Same-sex families, on the other hand, also become a new family form since May 2019 after Taiwan becomes the first country in Asia to legalize same-sex marriages. By June 2020, more than 4000 same-sex couples have registered for marriage, and slightly more than two-thirds of them are lesbian unions. While cohabitation and same-sex marriages still await more social acceptance, they nonetheless expand family diversity in Taiwan.

Low Fertility 

With changing patterns of family behaviours, the most notable phenomenon in recent decades has been very-low fertility levels in Taiwan. Period total fertility rates, (PTFR) which refer to the total number of children a woman will bear in her lifetime if she experienced the age-specific fertility rates observed in a given year, first dropped below the replacement level of 2.1 children in 1984. While fertility levels stayed at around 1.8 children for about a decade in the 1990s, they resumed another stage of rapid decrease after the new millennium and reached a historically low record of 0.9 children in 2010. By 2019, PTFR is only 1.05 children and will likely continue declining in the years to come. Although decreasing marital fertility rates is a significant driver of fertility decline in the 1970s and 1980s, delayed and forgone marriages have become crucial in depressing period fertility levels in recent decades. Rising lifelong singlehood has also made the goal of bringing fertility reversal to more sustainable levels more complicated. This is particularly the case when non-marital births are too rare (<4% in recent years) to offset declining marital fertility rates. In addition to low rates of non-marital births, very low levels of fertility in Taiwan are accompanied by several unique demographic phenomena: a skewed sex ratio at birth (SRB), which refers to sex ratios above 104-106 boy per 100 girl babies, reflecting a fertility preference for sons above and beyond natural sex ratios at birth, rising bridal pregnancy rates, and relatively low levels of cohabitation. These are demographic characteristic not found in low-fertility Europe. On the one hand, a sizable share of young adults today still views having a son as an obligatory element of filial piety. Such a phenomenon is also disturbing to observe because SRB rose with women’s expanding educational and occupation attainments over the past decades. On the other hand, despite all the rapid family changes in the past decades, births outside of marital unions in Taiwan remain rare. They had only increased from about 1.5% in 1975 to 3.8% in 2018. Moreover, rates of cohabitation in Taiwan remain relatively lower than its European counterparts, even though bridal pregnancy rates have increased in the past decades.

Confucian Family Culture: The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same?

It is likely that the Confucian patrilineal kinship system that favours male heirs and suppresses female autonomy are at the root of these phenomena. That is, despite high levels of development and advancement in female status, the preference for sons appears to persist and even reinforced in an era of below-replacement fertility levels. These phenomena reflect the deep-rooted Confucian values that emphasize women’s chastity and the view of marriage as the ideal context of childbearing. While increased sexual freedom and more cohabiting unions in contemporary Taiwan have increased the risk of non-marital births, “illegitimate” births are still considered disgraceful to a family. Thus, premarital conceptions often fasten the transition to marriage, which is why bridal pregnancies have made up more than one-third of all births in recent birth cohorts. However, for young adults who are not financially ready to get married, having children outside of wedlock is not an option on the table. Thus many of these pregnancies might have led to abortions. Indeed, ingrained Confucian patrilineal and patriarchal norms, which are transmitted intergenerationally, have put individuals in rigid roles. This leaves them few options for new adaptive behaviours in a rapidly changing world. 

Moreover, the collectivist culture in Taiwan, which views childcare as a family responsibility, is associated with the institutional barriers of limited government support for families, until recently. The Taiwanese Government has only become more proactive in implementing pronatalist policies to balance work-family demands since the 2000s, such as putting forth parental leave policies and expanding the provision of childcare facilities. More aggressive policies were later put forth after 2010 when PTFR stayed stubbornly below 1.5 children. The impact and effectiveness of these recent new policies on incentives to have children (and to marry) await some time to tell. Overall, population decline due to very low fertility levels in Taiwan is likely an inevitable future. The underlying causes are certainly not just insufficient policies to support families but also cultural and institutional factors that hamper more family formation events. While more profound social transformation takes time to happen, current ultra-low fertility observed in this region likely reflects a transitional state of social maladaptation to women’s new roles. Fewer babies and more unwed adults into their midlife are foreseeable in the future, which will not only expedite population ageing but the progress toward more varied household types. 

While family and social values are gradually becoming more liberal, more substantial changes in socially acceptable behaviours require more time. Hence, in addition to policies promoting childbearing, the Taiwanese Government should also consider how to sustain or improve citizens well-being, regardless of their union status, in an ultra-low fertility context. Research on the obstacles to fertility in East Asia mostly studied the married population, yet obstacles to marriage among the single population are perhaps equally important in this region. That is if the demographic realities we are facing now reflect reluctant and involuntary outcomes of the younger generations, perhaps the aims of government should be to build up a more flexible and supportive environment that promotes family formation. However, if current situations of low-fertility and less-marriage represent desirable life choices among the younger generations, then the problems of low fertility and an ageing population should probably be tackled from angles other than pronatalist policies. This would involve investing more in automation to counter labour shortage and expanding migration to maintain a more sustainable tax base. After all, the welfare of the young and old living in low fertility contexts should always be policy priorities.

Yen-hsin Alice Cheng is an associate research fellow in the Institute of Sociology at Academia Sinica, Taiwan. She is trained as a family demographer and her primary research interests include family changes and low fertility in contemporary societies, social inequalities in the process of demographic transition, and public opinions about homosexuality and same-sex marriage.

This article is part of a special edition on changing families in Taiwan.

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