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Nothing like this has happened in human history. Men outnumber women by 70 million in China and India. The consequences of having too many men, now coming of age, are far-reaching: Beyond an epidemic of loneliness, the imbalance distorts labor markets, drives up savings rates in China and drives down consumption, artificially inflates certain property values, and parallels increases in violent crime, trafficking or prostitution in a growing number of locations.
Those consequences are not confined to China and India, but reach deep into their Asian neighbors and distort the economies of Europe and the Americas, as well. Barely recognized, the ramifications of too many men are only starting to come into sight. India, a country that has a deeply held preference for sons and male heirs, has an excess of 37 million males, according to its most recent census. The number of newborn female babies compared with males has continued to plummet, even as the country grows more developed and prosperous.
The imbalance creates a surplus of bachelors and exacerbates human trafficking, both for brides and, possibly, prostitution. Officials attribute this to the advent of sex-selective technology in the last 30 years, which is now banned but still in widespread practice. These lines represent the number of girls, from newborns to age four, in China and India since , with projections out to The shaded area is the difference between these boys and girls. The number of young boys in India and China has outpaced the number of young girls by millions for at least 20 years.
When looking at just the ratio of boys to girls in each country, it may look as if that gap has narrowed The biggest gap between men and women of marriageable age, defined here as 15 to 29, will come in the next few decades, as the babies of the past decade grow up. And factoring in the large pool of both unmarried older and younger men vying for the same small pool of young women, the gap becomes more of a chasm. Both nations are belatedly trying to come to grips with the policies that created this male-heavy generation.
And demographers say it will take decades for the ramifications of the bulge to fade away. Village life and mental health. Among men, loneliness and depression are widespread.
Villages are emptying out. Men are learning to cook and perform other chores long relegated to women. Housing prices and savings rates. Bachelors are furiously building houses in China to attract wives, and prices are soaring. In India, there is the opposite effect: Because brides are scarce, families are under less pressure to save for expensive dowries. The desperate effort to land a bride. Trafficking of brides is on the rise. With the increase in men has come a surge in sexual crime in India and concerns about a rise in other crimes in both countries.
Harassment of schoolgirls in India has in some towns sparked an effort to push back — but at a cost of restricting them to more protected lives. Taking a stand over harassment. The growing number of eligible men who cannot find brides has had a profound impact on the age-old rhythms of family life.
Adult sons live with their mothers — in some cases, their grandmothers. Indian and Chinese women who showed a marked preference for sons are growing old.
They are still burdened with cooking and cleaning for their adult sons, and the stress affects their health. If they remain single, they will be declared not men at all. The basic function of a man in rural society is to have a family and look after that family.
Li Weibin has never had a girlfriend. Boys outnumbered girls in the isolated mountain village where he grew up, in the factories where he worked as a teenager, and on the construction sites where he now earns a modest wage. Today, 30 years old, he lives in a bare, stuffy dormitory room with five other men in the southern city of Dongguan, bunk beds lining the walls, cigarette butts carpeting the floor.
Construction worker Li Weibin, 30, has never had a girlfriend. This is a country where marriage confers social status, and where parental pressure to produce grandchildren is intense. In Dongguan, where the gender ratio is men to women, Li says he has virtually given up hope of finding a girlfriend.
He spends his spare time playing games on his phone, or accompanying his co-workers to karaoke or for a foot massage. Om Pati is the mother of seven sons, including from left, Sandeep, Sanjay and Suresh. But instead she had a son. Then another, and another — seven in all. Her neighbors in the village were overjoyed for her each time a new baby arrived.
They rang steel plates so everyone in the neighborhood would know a boy had been born. After all, this is a culture where male children are desired above all else — to light the Hindu funeral pyre, inherit property, care for aging parents. Sometimes it felt to Om Pati like she was the mother of sons. She worked from sunrise until night. She consoled herself with the thought that she would one day have daughters-in-law to trade stories and share cooking duties. But by the time her eldest Sanjay — now 38 and a cook — reached marriageable age, the practice of families in her area sneaking off to larger cities for an illegal sonogram and then an abortion had taken its toll.
When she and her husband began seeking matches for arranged marriage, still the norm, there were no suitable brides. These days, Om Pati, now 60, spends her days cooking and cleaning for her husband and adult sons, who range from age 22 to They gobble up so many rotis — the flat-round bread loaves that are a household staple, each one shaped in her calloused hands — that she goes through several pounds of flour a day. Suresh Kumar says the suffocation he feels as a single year-old is palpable.
Suresh Kumar once dreamed of getting married, with a procession through the lanes of Bass, a bride adorned in gold and the kind of ceremony that was once a near-universal rite of passage for Indian men. But after one potential engagement fell apart, no other suitable brides could be found. He even went back to earn his high school degree in hopes of being a more attractive suitor. The men themselves are isolated, left out of major family decisions and subject to ridicule, with little in the way of support or mental health services.
Worse, in the traditional culture of villages, those who missed out on marriage have no hope of female companionship — dating or having a girlfriend is out of the question. One recent evening, a family threw a rooftop party to celebrate the birth of a boy. Parties to welcome girl babies are still so rare they are covered by the local newspaper. Before the guests arrived, Kumar huddled in a stairwell nearby, sweating over a cast-iron pot, cracking jokes with friends as he fried sweet pancakes for the guests.
During a harvest festival last year, his mother was delayed in another town. So Kumar was left to prepare the pancakes on his own. As he flipped the cakes in the bubbling oil, he grew teary-eyed, thinking of how there was no wife and kids to eat the treats he was making. In China, there are simply too many men. What is lacking in his family? What is lacking in him?
Evenings are the loneliest times, when the village folds into itself, minders return with their cows from the pond, smoke wafts from evening meals, schoolchildren still in their plaid school uniforms play in the uneven lanes. Kumar shuts himself in his room. What I feel inside stays inside. When he was in high school he had a brief romance with a classmate, a beautiful year-old, tall and slim, with two braids that reached down her back.
Even now he cannot speak of her without singing a few bars of an Urdu love song. But the tryst was discovered, the parents put a stop to it, and his classmate eventually married someone else. To catch a wife, build a house. It takes a house, savings and a good job to win a bride. Many Chinese men are working harder, taking more dangerous or unpleasant jobs, to get ahead.
Parents are also trying to give their sons a leg up financially. The high household savings rate, particularly in China, helps explain its huge trade surplus. A man who makes cheap shoes for export does not spend the wages he earns on consumer goods imports. Instead he saves to build a house and attract a bride. Another unintended result — urban housing prices are rising fast.
The savings rate skyrocketed during the s, when the sex ratio between girls and boys also climbed. Families sock that money away instead of spending it. Having sons was once a hedge against poverty in old age.
Now elderly parents are sacrificing to help their sons appear marriageable — and to support sons who fail to find a bride. Today, young people are fleeing the villages in a desperate search for fortune, and marriage. The best way to find a bachelor in rural China these days: Li Defu is typical.
Now 21, he left home seven years ago to find work in the provincial capital Guiyang, but he has pooled the family savings to build a room house overlooking the green hills and valleys of his birthplace, Paifeng. Li was brought up by his grandmother, a tiny, wizened woman who sat beside him as he chatted.
His parents still work in far-off factories; the savings they have collected could be crucial. A year-old who gave only his family name, Wang, came to Guangdong province to work when he was He has saved enough to build a house back home but struggles to find a wife.
A decade or two back, the typical bride price was just a few hundred dollars.