Have East Asian families changed?

Universal marriage and low divorce used to characterize family behavior in East Asia. A strong image attached to East Asian family is the minimal difference in family behavior across socioeconomic and demographic groups within a society. Confucian culture, in particularly, was invoked to explain uniform family behavior in East Asia.

However, during the last few decades, East Asian families have considerably changed, along with rising economic inequality and significant expansion of higher education in the region. Explaining the second demographic transition, which include delays in fertility and marriage, and increases in non-marital birth and divorce, demographer McLanahan (2004) emphasized diverging destinies as a key demographic trend over the last few decades in the United States.

What are diverging destinies?

McLanahan (2004) states that the changes from the second demographic transition have brought an increasing gap in children’s resources (time and money) between high and low educated people in the U.S. There are two different patterns that are concentrated in two different education levels. Delays in childbearing and increase in material employment are increasingly concentrated among the high-educated, while trends in divorce and nonmarital childbirth are concentrated among the low-educated. This same idea of diverging destinies (increasing gaps) between the low and high educated can be seen in East Asian countries. Japanese and Korean studies demonstrate the general trends of the second demographic transition (overall decrease in marriage and increase in divorce), but they also showed that some of the previously mentioned behaviors are particularly concentrated among low educated, creating an increasing gap between the low and high educated.

Studies focused on East Asia have demonstrated that:

  • Marriage is declining, but especially for low educated men and women. (Park & Lee, 2017; Fukuda et al, 2020)
  • Divorce is increasing, but especially for low educated men and women. (Raymo et al, 2004; Park & Raymo, 2013).

This change of family behavior has its roots in multiple factors. However, economic inequality and uncertainty in the labor market are the main reason why families are diverging their behavior. As for economic inequality, in Korea, the top 10% of income brackets took up to 50.6% of the total national income in 2017 (Source: Business Korea).

Implications of Diverging Destinies for East Asian Families

In contrast to the old image of little variation in family behavior among East Asian families, we have seen diverging gaps in marriage and divorce between the low- and high-educated in both Japan and Korea. An important lesson from these family behavior trends is significant disadvantage of low-educated men and women in forming a family though marriage and in maintaining a family. More policy efforts should pay attention to supporting low-educated men and women in forming and maintaining a family. Otherwise, declining marriage rates and extremely low fertility in East Asia may continue.


Fukuda, Setsuya, James M. Raymo, and Shohei Yoda. 2020. “Revisiting the Educational Gradient in Marriage in Japan” Journal of Marriage and Family 82: 1378-1396

McLanahan, Sarah. 2004. “Diverging Destinies: How Children are Faring under the Second Demographic Transition.” Demography 41: 607-627.

Park, Hyunjoon and Jae Kyung Lee. 2017. “Growing Educational Differentials in the Retreat from Marriage among Korean Men.” Social Science Research 66: 187-200.

Park, Hyunjoon and James M. Raymo. 2013. “Divorce in Korea: Trends and Educational Differentials.” Journal of Marriage and Family 75: 110-126

Raymo, James M., Miho Iwasawa, and Larry Bumpass. 2004. “Marital Dissolution in Japan: Recent Trends and Patterns.” Demographic Research 11: 395-420.

News: Korea’s Top 10 Percent Income Brackets Take Up 50.6 Percent of Nation’s Total Income. (2019, March 19). Retrieved December 18, 2020, from http://www.businesskorea.co.kr/news/articleView.html?idxno=30097


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