Seeking a Romantic Partner? Taiwan’s Government Offers Assistance in Dating
In Tainan, Taiwan, Hsu Yu-hsin, a 37-year-old makeup artist, attended a unique singles mixer at a temple dedicated to Taiwan’s god of marriage. Despite the intense summer heat, she found the event enjoyable, except for one unusual aspect: local officials and dignitaries were actively encouraging attendees to find partners and start families quickly. Wang Tseng-rong, the temple chairman, addressed the crowd, urging them to pair up and have children swiftly, highlighting the support from various government departments in Tainan for this matchmaking initiative. He expressed hopes for future support from the mayor to address Taiwan’s critical issue: a rapidly declining birthrate.
This declining birthrate, reaching record lows, is a widespread concern in East Asia, affecting countries like South Korea, China, and Singapore. Societal shifts and growing economic pessimism among young people have led to plummeting fertility rates, raising alarms about an aging and shrinking population. Even at this government-sponsored event in Tainan, which coincided with Chinese Valentine’s Day, many participants showed ambivalence towards marriage and family life, reflecting the broader challenge officials face in encouraging younger generations to counteract depopulation trends.
Hsu, who made a two-hour train journey from Taipei to attend the event in Tainan, connected with a fellow attendee over a shared fondness for Tainan’s street food, leading to a late-night snack together. Despite this pleasant interaction, she ultimately felt they were better suited as friends. Since her 30s, Hsu’s urgency to marry and have children has diminished, especially after observing the challenges faced by others in her circle who have multiple children.
She expressed the view that while having children might be straightforward, raising them is a significant challenge. Hsu pointed out the financial burdens of modern living, such as the costs of a car, a home, and daily expenses. She emphasized that today’s economic pressures are immense, leading many to hesitate about having children due to the potential impact on their quality of life.
In recent years, the interest in marriage among Taiwanese has notably declined. According to a 2019 survey by Taiwan’s Ministry of Health and Welfare, 38.6% of women expressed disinterest in marriage, a significant increase from 12.4% in a 2011 survey. The marriage rate in Taiwan reached a historic low in 2021, with only 4.88 marriages per 1,000 people, the lowest in over 25 years of government record-keeping.
For nearly three decades, the Taiwanese government has played a role in helping singles find partners. However, this matchmaking initiative has become more critical as Taiwan’s fertility rate plummeted. In 2022, the fertility rate dropped to a record low of 0.87, which is considerably below the 2.1 rate needed to maintain a stable population. This low birthrate means an increasing proportion of elderly individuals will depend on a shrinking pool of younger workers for support. The situation is further exacerbated as the overall number of women of childbearing age also declines.
Last year, South Korea recorded an even lower birthrate than Taiwan, at 0.78. Addressing similar concerns, Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has urgently called attention to the country’s low birthrate of 1.26, warning of its potential to disrupt societal functioning. In response, Japan launched a dedicated agency in April to support families with young children.
In Taiwan, the issue of declining birthrates has become a focal point in the upcoming January election campaigns. Vice President William Lai has prioritized this issue, advocating for the current administration’s population policies. Opposition candidate Hou Yu-ih has suggested increased subsidies for egg-freezing and for families with three children. Terry Gou, the billionaire founder of Foxconn, a major supplier for Apple, and a long-shot presidential candidate, has proposed giving cats and dogs to new parents to promote births, as pet raising is becoming a popular alternative to having children in Taiwan.
However, Lin Wan-i, the government minister responsible for Taiwan’s population policy, believes these measures may be too late. In 2008, Lin released a white paper to highlight the declining birthrates issue, but it took the government nearly a decade to start enacting more comprehensive policies to encourage child-rearing. This delay suggests that earlier intervention might have been more effective in addressing the population decline.
Lin Wan-i, the minister in charge of Taiwan’s population policy, likens the current situation to “sending someone to the ICU too late.” He emphasizes that despite the delayed response, there’s still a need for effective solutions to address the declining birthrate.
Lin’s current efforts focus on mitigating various economic and social factors that have reduced the inclination to have children in Taiwan. Among these, the high cost of childcare is the most straightforward issue to tackle. The government has implemented measures such as expanding public childcare facilities, offering tuition subsidies, and capping preschool fees to make childcare more affordable.
However, Lin faces more significant challenges with stagnant wage growth and soaring housing prices. According to the Ministry of the Interior, the ratio of the median home price to the median annual household disposable income in Taiwan hit a record high of nearly 10 to 1 last year, doubling over the past two decades. This economic pressure is exacerbated in a society where owning a home before starting a family is traditionally expected.
Despite efforts to increase the minimum wage, tax multiple home owners, and build more affordable housing, these initiatives have made little impact in bridging the economic gap that discourages family formation. This situation underlines the complexity of the problem and the need for more comprehensive solutions to encourage child-rearing in Taiwan.
Shen Pin-yu, a 39-year-old marketing professional at a real estate firm in Taichung, Taiwan, cites the financial strains her younger brother and his wife endure while raising their 3-year-old daughter as a prime example of why many are hesitant to have children. Shen, observing their struggles, prefers to remain single and childless rather than start a family under financially challenging conditions.
Shen notes the rising costs of housing and goods, emphasizing the added financial pressures that come with having children. This situation is not unique to her family but reflects a broader trend in Taiwan, where the financial responsibilities of raising a child have become increasingly daunting.
In response to these challenges, Taiwan made a significant policy change in 2021, increasing the pay new parents receive during maternity or paternity leave from 60% to 80% of their salaries. Lin Wan-i, the minister overseeing population policy, mentions that officials are considering further enhancements, such as increasing the pay percentage or extending the paid leave duration beyond six months. However, there’s uncertainty about the government’s financial capacity to implement these changes, especially given that over $3 billion has already been spent on child-rearing initiatives. This situation underscores the delicate balance between supporting families and managing the economic implications of such support.
Lin Wan-i emphasizes a gradual approach to addressing Taiwan’s low birthrate, setting a goal to increase it to or above 1.1 this year as a starting point. He believes that achieving this initial target would enable them to continue efforts to stabilize and improve the birthrate trend.
Pai Yi-che, a 28-year-old subway maintenance worker in Taichung, finds his current monthly salary of $1,100 a significant barrier to considering marriage. Despite this financial challenge, Pai remains open to exploring relationships. He participated in a local government-sponsored dating event in July, seeing it as an opportunity to meet potential partners, given the male-dominated nature of his work and educational environments.
Pai expresses his desire to experience a stable relationship, something he hasn’t had before, and remains open to the idea of having children if circumstances allow. His situation reflects the broader economic and social factors influencing young Taiwanese people’s decisions regarding marriage and family.
Lin Wan-i has revealed that Taiwanese universities are now offering courses on relationships and socializing to support young people in dating. Additionally, the government is examining matchmaking models from Japan and Singapore to potentially enhance singles events and leverage artificial intelligence and online platforms.
Lin acknowledges public skepticism about government involvement in personal matters like dating. However, he believes such initiatives are worth trying, though their effectiveness remains uncertain.
Chen Yu-hua, an associate professor at National Taiwan University and former president of the Population Association of Taiwan, points out that despite local governments’ increased efforts in matchmaking since 2010, there have been limited success stories. She suggests that the issue isn’t just about finding the right partner; increasing marriage and fertility rates isn’t straightforward.
Chen also notes a gender disparity in these matchmaking events, with men participating more than women, who are increasingly prioritizing career over traditional, often patriarchal, family roles. This shift reflects broader changes in gender roles and workplace dynamics.
Echoing this sentiment, Chen Chian-yi, a 26-year-old graphic designer who attended the Tainan event, observes that many people are now focusing on personal goals and aspirations. For them, marriage and children are no longer the primary objectives, signaling a significant shift in societal priorities and values.
In her high school years, Chen envisioned herself married with three children by her current age. However, in recent years, she has realized that she is not interested in marriage or having children. This change in perspective led her to leave a singles mixer early with her friends, feeling out of place among participants who were earnestly seeking partners with pens and notepads in hand. The heat, flies, and the serious nature of the event further contributed to their decision to leave early.
Chen’s shift in attitude reflects her growing realization of the realities of marriage and parenting, influenced by the experiences of her friends. She notes that her youthful idealism has been tempered by a better understanding of what life in a marriage and as a parent entails.
The Tainan government organized its first singles event in 2019 to encourage relationships and, hopefully, increase the birthrate. After a pause due to the pandemic, the city resumed hosting these mixers, holding three in total. While these events have led to several initial pairings, none have yet resulted in a marriage that the government is aware of.
Chiang Lin-huang, the city’s director of civil affairs, remains hopeful that these events will at least get young people thinking about finding a partner and settling down. He emphasizes the government’s care and concern for these significant life decisions, aiming to remind young people of the importance of considering marriage and family life.