Faculty & Research
Faculty & Research
The business of singles: What make them happy?
By Wang Yajin
Eating for one, living for one, touring for one… with the number of singles in China exceeding 200 million and still going up, a gigantic consumption force is emerging and giving rise to new consumption perspectives and modalities. For this growing segment, an endless stream of activities such as fit-keeping, yoga-doing, touring and cat-raising is enough to make life enjoyable (without getting married). But, what are the deep-seated underlying factors behind this ‘singles boom’? And, what are the characteristics of the ‘singles economy’ and how can we perceive the hidden business opportunities associated with their lifestyles?
Why the ‘singles boom’?
First, there exists a general misunderstanding that young singles do not want to get married or bear children. Singles are those between 18 and 45 years old who are not legally married. While many of them enjoy the dating life without marriage, some of them do have the need (and even a very strong one) to get married and have children.
The ‘singles boom’ is not a passing trend, nor is it a pop cultural fad that has come about fortuitously. Rather, it is the combined result of a multitude of factors, including China’s demographic structure in the modern era, the country’s economic development and regional imbalances. Therefore, to some extent, it is the inevitable result of various social trends that has been long in the making.
Competition reduces the willingness to be in a committed relationship
It is not that young singles do not want to fall in love and get married at all. Rather, their values for marriage are predicated upon the social conditions that surround them. Marriage is not simply two people living under the same roof; it entails more obligations and responsibilities for both partners.
As the level of education and affluence amongst young people continues to rise, the difficulties and pressures of competition keep growing. Moreover, competition within groups pushes up the cost of survival and conventional success. Similar to the job market, competition in the marriage market is also increasing. For young people, the search for high-quality mates and the need to undertake family responsibilities and provide a good education environment for offspring all demand more effort, reducing their willingness to fall in love and enter marriage.
Imbalances in the marriage market
Imbalances in the marriage market can also lead to later-in-life marriages. Let us approach this issue from the perspective of sex ratio and regional imbalances in gender distribution.
In China, there is an imbalance in the sex ratio and males currently outnumber females by around 30-35 million individuals. By 2019, the two age groups with the sharpest gender imbalance were those aged 10-14 and those 15-19, with ratios of 119.10:100 and 118.38:100, respectively. This will translate into a significantly imbalanced marriage market in the future.
The cost of marriage also varies between regions with different gender ratios. Research has shown a more male-biased sex ratio, the more competition on the marriage market; which, in turn, leads to higher costs and expenses in areas with higher proportions of males.
There is another interesting phenomenon to be noted. According to the data of China’s Bureau of Civil Affairs, the proportion of females of marrying age with higher education degrees has now exceeded that of males (with the trend being most obvious in first-tier cities). Since females in first and second-tier cities are more educated and earn higher incomes, they are more selective in choosing their future partners. On the other hand, high-quality males tend to choose females that are younger and good looking rather than those with higher educational backgrounds or income. This has led to a higher proportion of well-educated, high-income single women in the marriage market.
Life history theory: Fast and slow strategies
In the field of evolutionary psychology, life history theory attempts to explain the role of resource allocation in an individual’s survival, development, and reproduction. Two extremes on this continuum of strategies are the fast strategy and the slow strategy. Tenrecs (a small mammal resembling hedgehogs or opossums), for example, outcompete one another using a fast strategy, where they begin to reproduce at a very early stage generating a plethora of offspring. Elephants, on the other hand, adopt a slow strategy, where-in they develop a strong constitution early on in life and only produce a few offspring with a higher chance of survival later on.
Generally, the strategy of human beings is closer to that of elephants. Yet, it also differs amongst different groups with different resources at their disposal. Individuals adopting a fast strategy experience sexual maturation at an earlier age, tend to have more sexual partners and produce more offspring. Individuals adopting a slow strategy, on the other hand, experience sexual maturation later, usually have fewer sexual partners and give birth to children at a later stage in life. Meanwhile, they also put more effort into the development of their offspring.
So, what factors influence the choice between the fast and the slow strategy? It is generally recognised that the stability of an individual’s childhood environment will affect their choice of strategy in the future (e.g. those that grow up in a stable environment tend to adopt a slow strategy). Most of China’s “post-1990s” do not come from rich backgrounds, yet they have grown up under highly certain conditions, accompanied and provided for by their families daily. Without any experience of destitution, they are not bothered by any sense of crisis and therefore are more inclined toward a slow strategy. In contrast, those who have grown up in high-pressure and unstable environments tend to adopt fast strategies.
Currently, both fast strategy and slow strategy adopters are postponing their time for marriage. For slow strategists living at a slower pace, choosing later marriage and child-rearing is easy to comprehend. For fast strategists, however, they cannot get married early even if they want to, since they face greater competition and need to cross certain thresholds in terms of social status and material wealth before they can consider marriage.
The ‘singles economy’ is not the same as living alone and spending for one
Increasing numbers of singles and the changes in their consumption beliefs are giving life to a new market. As their consumption in areas such as games, pets, tourism, mini home appliances and recreation and entertainment keeps increasing, a new ‘singles economy’ is on the rise.
First of all, singles are not necessarily single dwellers. According to the China Statistical Yearbook, in 2019, the number of single adults exceeded 240 million, of which 77 million were single dwellers. This implies that a large percentage of unmarried adults are not single dwellers. Second, the singles economy does not completely equal spending for one. This group also has a strong need for socialisation and dating, and opportunities for group socialisation still exist.
In my view, the singles economy has two meanings: it can refer to the market related to the current life conditions and lifestyles of singles; but it also includes the consumption behaviours that arise from the socialisation and dating needs of singles.
In the first sense, it refers to products that have been designed for spending-for-one scenarios, and which target the status of being single (such as rice packed in single servings or mini home appliances). With changes in both current times and the general economic backdrop, young people have demonstrated a greater willingness for investment in themselves and for consumption upgrading towards a better life. Added to this, they are also taking more practical considerations into account in their choice of products, such as small-package goods to avoid waste.
In the second sense, the singles economy refers to the consumption scenarios that are designed to satisfy the socialisation needs of singles. Products, scenarios and services such as role-playing board games and related socialisation apps have all been designed to satisfy their needs.
Humans are social animals and most singles still have a psychological need for socialisation and making friends. Due to different priorities in various daily needs, the socialisation demand of singles may be more vibrant than that of married individuals, in that they are free from family burdens, have more free time and are less conscious about savings. On the other hand, the psychological status and life priorities of married people have changed, and their demand for socialisation has been reduced as a result of more family time and less free time.
Therefore, based on the differences in consumption scenarios between singles and married individuals, there is huge market potential in the socialisation and dating demands of singles. The longer they stay single, the longer they remain on the marriage market and the more they will spend on activities that could help them rid themselves of their singularity (such as more time spent on dating websites and apps).
There are, however, some technological substitutes that can meet the needs of some singles, such as AI chat-bots. New forms of entertainment have also come about to meet their needs, and we now see many people spending their money following entertainment stars and livestreaming influencers.
Apart from visual replacements, real personal contact can provide more satisfaction and is a need that has been mainly satisfied by two kinds of products. One is socialisation products aimed at traditional dating. Another is a series of apps, platforms and scenarios that do not provide for dating, but instead provide other forms of socialisation. This is the underlying foundation for the popularity of role-playing board games and live-action role plays that require the participation of many people. In terms of dating apps, data shows that from 2017 to 2019 the downloading of dating and socialisation iOS apps increased year-on-year, at an annual rate of around 40%.
How can we grasp the business opportunities of the singles economy?
In my view, the segmentation of the singles economy should be based on needs instead of products, since market penetration in this area is gauged by the total time and degree of engagement with the consumer, instead of the share of a certain product in one category. As part of the probing into the business objectives, one can expound into the values that a certain product or service could provide for consumers. If such value can resonate with one or a few of the needs of unmarried people, it stands a chance of developing into a long-term business.
The most distinctive features of singles are that they are energetic, hormone-driven, competitive and free from family responsibilities. They have strong social needs, with ample free time and a carpe-diem mentality. Companies need to understand these fundamental needs in order to design products and craft scenarios to capture the business opportunities in it.
Segmentation by demands can also explain the marketing logic of existing products aimed at singles. Take the beauty industry, for example. Although whitening and fit-keeping are what consumers need on the surface, the need to become more appealing to dating mates and raise their social status are what they need in their innermost heart. Beauty salons can proceed from this logic to capture consumers’ inmost needs to grasp consumer preferences more precisely in order to improve their competitiveness of their brands and products.
Similarly, brick-and-mortar restaurants aimed at “dining for one” can relieve the embarrassment of eating alone. Present social norms are biased against “being alone” and dining out alone may be interpreted as having no friends and is therefore a failure. Dining-for-one venues have strategically selected eating for one as a unique selling point and have been designed in such a manner as to reduce the embarrassment of eating alone. In addition, most menus in ordinary restaurants are designed for ordinary socialisation scenarios involving group dining, and individuals are likely to waste food if they order just for one. This problem is solved quite comfortably with dining-for-one combo meals.
In the area of games, successfully designed games not only satisfies users’ needs for entertainment. Some games specially configured for male users have accommodated their need for competitive excitement and for the visibility that they can attain by winning games (something that can serve as an easy substitute for the sense of achievement imparted by one’s social status in the real world). It is also worth mentioning that users may just feel happy playing games and may not realise the gratification of their needs for respect and recognition in this process.
Finally, the singles economy has magnified the differentiation in the design of products aimed at male and female users. In their unmarried status, males and females demonstrate vast differences in their personal traits, with males having more aggressiveness and a greater desire for control and social status, something which they cannot enjoy in reality. In light of these characteristics, game designers have managed to meet such demands by setting up competitions and ranking mechanisms. Females, on the other hand, attach more importance to emotional exchanges and socialisation, and these differences underlie the different design features that we see on platforms such as HUPU and Xiaohongshu.
Wang Yajin is an Associate Professor of Marketing at CEIBS. For more on her teaching and research interests, please visit her faculty profile here.