Too much work and not enough sex threatens China’s new population plans

Society & Culture

The Chinese government wants young people to have more babies. But a scholar suggests they may be too busy working to have time and energy for procreative acts.

Birthrate declines in China
Koki Kataoka / Reuters

China’s birth rates are in steady decline: In 2020, the country registered only 12 million newborns, the lowest since 1961. The average number of births per woman fell to 1.3, far  below the 2.1 needed to maintain a steady population.

As in other countries, there are myriad reasons for the continuous drop in China, such as financial constraints and lack of societal support for working parents. And although new professional opportunities for women and their increasing freedom of choice are positive developments, they may be working against the Chinese government’s new initiatives to raise birth rates. 

There might also be another contributing factor: China’s brutal overwork culture.

This new theory was put forward recently by Zēng Díyáng 曾迪洋, a researcher on public policy at Nanjing University of Finance and Economics. According to The Paper (in Chinese), Zeng first proposed the correlation at an academic conference held by the Women’s Studies Institute of China (WSIC), a national-level institution that researches women and gender issues. At the meeting, which was dedicated to discussing “childbirth and childcare problems” against the backdrop of declining birth rates, Zeng shared a research paper exploring how working overtime affects individuals’ willingness to reproduce. 

Too busy for sex? 

While her article hasn’t appeared in any public journals yet, a news release by WSIC has given a synopsis of Zeng’s findings. According to the institute, Zeng discovered that although working long hours has no direct influence over people’s “desire to have babies,” it has an “obvious negative” impact on “reproductive behavior.” In addition, Zeng wrote that compared with voluntary overtime and paid overtime, being forced to work outside regular hours and not getting compensated is a more powerful “restraint” against people from engaging in activities related to reproduction.

“The research noted that the growing conflict between work and family life is a key reason for the falling birth rates,” The Paper wrote. “It advised authorities that in order to fundamentally solve the problem of low birth rates, they should keep introducing family-friendly policies for working people, freeing them from offices, and promoting gender equality in the workplace, closing the wage gap between women and their husbands.”

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It was unclear what research methods Zeng used for the study, but the paper generated some positive comments from other scholars at the conference, including Hè Guāngyè 贺光烨, a sociology professor at Nanjing University, who suggested Zeng incorporate more variables to make her study more convincing, such as occupation and stability of the job. 

Zeng’s findings are hardly groundbreaking: They basically validate numerous complaints made by working Chinese, especially young people, about their grinding work schedules. Although China’s labor law prohibits employees from working more than eight hours a day and 44 hours a week, with overtime being capped at 36 hours a month, a culture of extreme workaholism has flourished in recent years. 

The “996” culture in China’s biggest tech companies, where rank-and-file employees are encouraged or coerced to work from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week, has come under increasing regulatory security in the past year, as burned-out workers took to social media to blame employers for making them struggle with work-life balance, which, obviously, is crucial for anyone who wants to start a family.

On Chinese social media, much of the response was anecdotal evidence proving that Zeng’s theory is correct. “Not only do I struggle to find time for reproduction behavior, but I also can’t find a reason to have a baby who will eventually grow into another human labor for capitalists to exploit,” a Weibo user wrote (in Chinese). Another one remarked, “The entire situation is incredibly depressing. I feel like a cow surrounded by breeders who are discussing whether to play Mozart or Chopin to make my meat more tender.”

Besides personal testimonies from Chinese internet users, other studies have corroborated Zeng’s proposition. In a report released in March, the Social Trends Institute, a New York–based independent research center dedicated to the analysis of globally significant social trends, found that when countries on the whole shift toward valuing work more, birth rates sink. 

Specifically, after analyzing the work attitudes of more than 400,000 survey respondents in more than 100 countries over almost 40 years, the authors concluded that people who derive their strongest sense of identity and fulfillment from their careers tend to have fewer kids. The report also suggested that government policies that target workers to bolster fertility — such as universal childcare and parental leave programs — could actually “undermine their efforts as they strengthen a ‘workist’ life-script rather than a ‘familist’ script.”

But in China, it’s not just the workaholics that contribute to the not-enough-babies problem. The pervasive focus on careers, driven by the country’s long-held prosperity narrative of hard work guaranteeing upward mobility, has been met with pushback from millennials. Instead of striving for higher pay and social status in life, many of them opted to embrace “lying flat,” a growing movement that advocates leading a low-desire life, including not getting married and being child-free.