The Growing Complexity and Diversity of Taiwanese Families

Written By Yu-Hua Chen

Image Credit: Jonah With Grandparents by Wellwin Kwok/Flickr, license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Taiwanese families look different than they did a couple of decades ago. Partnering behaviours have changed substantially, with young people increasingly choosing to postpone marriage and parenthood. The mean age of first marriage has risen to 32.6 for men and 30.4 for women as of 2019. Gains in opportunities outside of marriage – together with the increasing costs of raising children – mean that the traditional male-breadwinner family has lost its appeal to young women. This is especially the case for well-educated women. Even though the total fertility rate (TFR) has fallen at a rapid pace over the past few decades, childbirth remains strongly associated with marriage. The barriers young people face in finding a partner while establishing themselves in the labour market contribute to declining fertility. At about one birth per woman, Taiwan currently vies with South Korea for having the lowest TFR in the world. 

A Changing Society 

It is impossible to explore family change without considering the demographic and societal changes that have been underway in Taiwan. In addition to the motivations for marriage and childbirth, the consequences of losing a parent or spouse and when people move to new locations are all influential family experiences. Greater wealth and access to health services have contributed to an increase in life expectancy. The persistently low fertility rates, unstable familial relationship, and the rapid population ageing are transforming the size of family and living arrangement patterns. According to the household registration records, the average household size has fallen from 6.09 persons per household in 1946 to 2.67 in 2020. As the fertility rate falls, only a small share of households includes children. The number of multigenerational and extended households has decreased significantly. More than 80 per cent of Taiwanese are living in a one- or two-generational households. 

Peter McDonald, a prominent demographer, has argued that “very low fertility in advanced countries today is the outcome of a conflict or inconsistency between high levels of gender equity in individual-oriented social institutions and sustained gender inequity in family-oriented social institutions.” Young women tend to delay marriage and childbearing if they do not feel confident about their ability to combine family with other opportunities that have opened up for them, primarily through paid employment. Since childbirth is still a strongly expected consequence after marriage, well-educated and employed women are even more likely to delay marriage and have fewer children or remain unmarried. Taiwanese men are also postponing marriage and parenthood, but most of them will enter the first marriage in their thirties or even at older ages. 

An Ageing Society 

Since childbirths outside marriage or to cohabiting couples are less acceptable in Taiwanese society, children are more likely to live with two parents and lineal family members. A majority of young-people under the age of 20 are growing up with at least one parent. Although the proportion of single-parent families is still low (7%), the official data show that about one-third of teenagers are living in a single-parent household. Other than divorce and separation of parents, children may live with one parent due to multiple homeownership. The proportion of children living without either parent stands less than 1%. Most of these children are being raised by their grandparents

The traditional Chinese family system is characterised as patriarchal, patrilineal, and patrilocal. The core value of the family is filial piety, the idea that adult children, especially the oldest son, have both the moral and legal obligation to support their elderly parents. Has this family system and intergenerational relations sustained in modern Taiwan? Regardless of gender, many adult children are helping their old parents financially. When it comes to parent care, sons are more likely to pass on caregiving responsibilities to their spouses or sisters. The truth is that families typically look to women first to serve in this role. In terms of living arrangement, recent studies confirm that, from the standpoint of the elderly, co-residence between old parents and one or more married male children remains the dominant pattern.

A dominant value orientation governs the family structure and relations in a given society. Although patrilocality remains deep-rooted in Taiwan society, this custom has been challenged by internal migration, low fertility rate, and changes in family values and preferences. Matrilocal residence is more likely to be adopted by young and well-educated couples who are living and working in urban areas. Matrilocality is an alternative when the wife does not have a brother. Besides, due to the prevalence of migration, some households are occupied by old parents only. The issue of the ageing population will be particularly acute in certain places, including Taipei City, Kaohsiung City, and several counties that are highly dependent on agriculture for their livelihood. Given an increasing number of Taiwanese no longer believe that family should take full responsibility for the care of elderly parents, the Government has been planning to establish an accessible and universal long-term care services system since 2007. 

A More Diverse Society 

As a result of these changes, there is no longer one dominant family form in Taiwan. Today more attention has been paid to new patterns including intercultural (or cross border) marriage, single-person household, and same-sex marriage. Since the 1970s, Hakka men in southern Taiwan have gotten married to Chinese Indonesians increasingly frequently. The 1994 Go South Policy encouraged not only trading but also a marriage between Taiwan and Southeast Asia. The lifting of Martial Law in 1987 and stabilising cross-Strait relations enabled Taiwanese to visit their homeland and provided single veterans or widowed ones with an opportunity to marry a Chinese woman. Taiwanese men at the bottom of socioeconomic status or living in rural areas are more likely to marry poorer, but culturally and ethnically similar women from China or Southeast Asia. 

In contrast to couples with children, the single-person household is the fastest-growing type of household in Taiwan. Based on the household registration records, the share of single-person households is 34 per cent of the total households in 2020, compared to 22 per cent in 2000. The rising prevalence of single-person households is mainly fuelled by the increase of young urban adults who live alone as a consequence of delayed or declining marriage, increasing marital dissolution, and increasing geographic mobility. Following the increase in life expectancy, widows are expected to constitute a large group among single-person households.

Taiwan, as a role model for gender equality in the Asia-Pacific region, legalised same-sex marriage in 2019. More than 3,500 same-sex couples have married since registration was opened. Despite this historic achievement, the Taiwanese same-sex marriage law does not ensure true marriage equality for foreigners. One of the pressing issues remaining is the marriage rights of transnational and both-foreigner same-sex partners. It depends on whether the foreign partner’s national law recognises same-sex marriage. If yes, they can apply for marriage registration in Taiwan’s household registration. If not, the household registration will refuse the marriage registration. For many such couples, marriage remains elusive elsewhere.

A Confucian Society 

The lineal orientation was another characteristic of Taiwan families. More importance was attached to the parent-child relationship than to the husband-wife relationship. Being a natural bonding, the parent-child relationship cannot be terminated. On the contrary, marriage could be dissolved by a decision of the husband or the family head. Under this circumstance, until the birth of her first son, a wife was an outsider to the family. While Taiwan has led the way in gender equality compared to Japan, Korea, and other Asian countries, there is still more to accomplish. Particularly in the private sphere, traditional gender roles still affect the way men and women manage the conflict between work and family. 

In Taiwan, there are high tensions between modern beliefs and attitudes, traditional family expectations, and prevailing social and workplace practices. Tensions are also associated with issues around job insecurity, underemployment, low pay, expensive housing, and education costs. All these factors affect the timing and willingness of young people to marry and have children, which in turn have profound impacts on the structure and relations of Taiwan families. To stop the fall in fertility rates and to respond to the challenge of rapid population ageing, the Government should consider and provide more sustainable and meaningful strategies and policies available for young generations.

Yu-Hua Chen is an Associate Professor in the Department of Bio-Industry Communication and Development and a Research Fellow at the Center for Population and Gender Studies, National Taiwan University, Taiwan.

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

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