The Elephant in the TFR Room: Female Hypergamy


Jack is a single man in his late 30s. He doesn’t have a university degree and earns around $3,000 a month from his full-time job.

Jane, on the other hand, is a single woman in her late 30s. She is a university graduate earning more than $10,000 a month as a high-flying professional.

Both Jack and Jane are turning 40 soon and wish to marry and settle down. They see their friends getting married and having children and wonder, “When will it be my turn?”

But there is a catch.

Jack and Jane are not each other’s “type.” They don’t know each other and don’t move in the same social circles. Jack is the kind of man Jane would “swipe left” on without a second thought if they used a dating app.

The “Marriage Squeeze”: Why are there so many lower-educated and lower-income single men? 

Jack and Jane’s fictional stories reflect the experiences of many single Singaporean men and women in their 30s and 40s. Singapore’s TFR hit a historic low of 0.97 in 2023, largely due to more women choosing to remain single during prime child-bearing years.

There is a sizeable proportion of lower-educated and lower-earning men who are single. At the same time, many higher-educated and higher-earning women are also single, despite their desire for marriage.

In 2022, 24.5% of single men in their 40s had below secondary school education, compared to the 14.7% average rate of singlehood among their peers across all educational levels.

Conversely, 18.8% of single women in their 40s had university education, above the average of 15.7% across all educational levels among their peers.

One writer has called this a “marriage squeeze”.

From 2005 to 2023, despite an increase in marital fertility rates, the larger decline in the proportion of married females offset these gains. This demonstrates that fewer marriages are leading to fewer births, despite married couples having more children on average. Why? Because of a preference for singlehood among young women, driven by factors such as career aspirations and economic independence.

This decline in marriage rates for educated women hasn’t taken Singapore by surprise. As early as 1983, then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew called this a “very grave problem”.

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This arises from a general trend in Singapore where men typically marry women who are equal or lower in education or earning power (hypogamy), whereas women typically marry men who are equal or higher in education or earning power (hypergamy).

In a 2010 post on Singapore Brides, one such man who desires a “pretty loving wife to settle down” lamented: “Problem is, my pay is only 3k+ and don’t have much savings in my bank. How am [I] able to afford the HDB downpayment, [cash over valuation] and wedding expenses?”

Who’s Responsible?

Research suggests that women are probably the ones setting the expectations. A 2022 survey of 500 singles by dating service Lunch Actually found that 92% of single men are willing to date women who earn more, but only 42% of women are willing to date men who earn less.

While the decline in TFR may have multivariate causes such as the growing societal acceptance of singlehood, concerns over the high cost of living, and balancing work and family life, the enduring explanation for the declining TFR from the 1980s to the present day has been female hypergamy.

Trends Elsewhere

In China, the one-child policy and cultural preference for boys have led to a surplus of nearly 31 million more males. It is reported that single rural Chinese men have difficulty finding wives, resulting in the creation of “bachelor villages” and a rise in “dating schools”.

A 2023 study found that across Asia, especially East and Southeast Asia (Singapore included), men of low education “face grave challenges in getting married”.

According to the authors Jones and Gu, this is because of cultural expectations that men would be the provider of the family, leaving women with less chance of gaining upward social mobility through marriage.

In Sweden, despite strong gender equality, hypergamy is slightly more nuanced. A 2019 study by Margarita Chudnovskaya and Ridhi Kashyap found that men often out-earn women across educational levels, with many couples having nearly equal incomes, suggesting that men and women in Sweden focus more on earnings rather than education.

Efforts to Boost Birth Rates in Singapore

Efforts to boost birth rates include the Baby Bonus Scheme starting at $11,000 in 2024, extended paid parental leave, childcare subsidies, tax incentives, and housing benefits. The government also subsidises up to 75% of ART treatment costs and provides a $4,000 CPF Medisave grant for newborns.

Despite these measures, they have not fully tackled deeper issues such as work-family balance and gender norms. Experts suggest that more needs to be done to create a supportive environment for families, including encouraging equal participation in domestic responsibilities.

But nothing seems to have worked yet.

Is There a Solution to the “Marriage Squeeze”?

One unsuccessful attempt was in 1984, when the Singapore Government controversially introduced the Graduate Mothers Scheme to give more benefits to children of university-educated mothers.

However, the Government ended the scheme a year later due to “anxiety” and “resentment” from the public and its low likelihood of “[producing] the desired results”.

Today, part of the solution may be to help lower-educated and lower-income men to improve their skills and education levels, which is good for them holistically and may also translate into better marriage prospects.

Yet a larger part of the solution must come from changing cultural expectations. How well-educated or wealthy should one’s spouse really be? – And why?

There are signs of societal shifts. According to a Straits Times article, the percentage of men with wives who have less education than them fell from 16.3% of marriages in 2011 to 12.3% in 2021.

Yet to go further, we need to see a change in what people truly value.

It is entirely reasonable for women (and men) to desire a spouse who is hardworking, disciplined, capable and responsible. It is reasonable to expect that these would be reflected in better performance in education or at work, and it seems that many in our society are using education or income levels as a proxy or indicator to measure these qualities.

However, these are only loose indicators of what ultimately matters.

A person’s high education or income levels do not automatically mean that the person has excellent character. Likewise, a person with lower education or income does not necessarily have poor character.

Focus on Character

Everyone wants to succeed in life. And everyone who is looking to get married wants a successful marriage and to find the “right one”.

But education and income are not ultimately what makes a person a good marriage partner. There are well-educated and high earning men who treat women badly, and lower-educated blue-collar men who are gentlemen. The same applies to women too.

What truly makes a person a good marriage partner is a person with good character. Is the person able to make commitments and honour promises? Is this a person of integrity, with a good moral compass to distinguish between right and wrong? Is he or she compassionate and kind?

Both individually and as a society, we would do well to shift our focus to what truly matters.

These are strengths of character which are not only good in marriage, but good in any area of life. And the bonus: A person of character would also likely be a valuable worker, friend and citizen.

Life has ways of rewarding character, even if the economy doesn’t.

Cultivate SG
Cultivate SG
Cultivate SG (UEN No. 202231115H) is an organisation dedicated to “cultivating culture together for the common good”.

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