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So Aunty, So What?

Published: Wednesday November 19, 2014 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Wednesday November 19, 2014 MYT 6:46:11 AM

Goodbye housewife, hello single lady

A recent event in China clearly signalled that the demise of the housewife is imminent and the ascent of the single woman inevitable. So what’s a mum with two daughters supposed to make of this?

SOME of you might recall that in July last year, as a mother of two marriageable daughters, I lamented, where have all the young men gone?

I got flak for that from singletons for being an interfering mum. But I also got support from other parents with similarly marriage-resistant children.

Well, more than a year later, my girls continue to resist any attempts to get them attached. And now an event in China on Nov 11 is making me wonder if I should just give up trying to turn them into wives – forget the “house” prefix, which was never my focus.

That was the day when China’s e-commerce giant Alibaba scored its biggest ever one-day sale with its Singles Day event, breaking all records: US$9.3bil (RM31.1bil) worth of goods sold in 24 hours.

In China, single people are called guanggun, literally meaning “bare sticks”. As the story goes, according to Bloomberg Businessweek, in 1993, a group of Nanjing University students “decided to celebrate the perils of singledom” every Nov 11, since the date has four stick-like ones.

The idea gained popularity; Alibaba spotted the potential, launched its Singles Day in 2009 and saw it grow into the biggest online shopping day in the world.

Of course it was a supremely clever marketing ploy to get thousands of retailers to offer deep discounts on a wide range of goods for just one day. And I’m sure plenty of married people took advantage and made purchases too.

But as Peter Golder, a marketing professor quoted in the Bloomberg Businessweek article, said: “The key to Alibaba’s success here is that they’ve taken something that’s already existed, developed it, and taken advantage of the fact that retailers wanted this as well.”

That means Alibaba didn’t create something out of nothing; there was a real basis for Singles Day.

For the longest time, however, it was the housewives who made up the most important target group for fast-moving consumer products.

If you have time, check out the YouTube videos of 1950s American soaps like Love of Life (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZojQxp9FGRk), where the opening commercial is an exciting message to housewives on how to stretch their dollar: Stop. Paying. Fancy. Prices. For … floor wax.

But with more people, especially women, opting out of marriage, singletons now make up the world’s fastest growing household group.

In my July article, I quoted from a report in The Economist that the “Asian avoidance of marriage is new and striking” because 30 years ago, just 2% of women were single in most Asian countries. Now it’s closer to 25% among women in their 30s.

Even the Middle East is not spared. According to the United Arab Emirates’ Marriage Fund, about 60% of women over 30 are unmarried, up from 20% in 1995. There’s no sign of a reversal and as expected, the UAE and other governments are pretty worried about it.

What is really interesting is the single households’ great spending power – as underscored by Alibaba’s success – which has led to the global phenomenon of the “solo economy”, first seen in the United States where half of American adults are unmarried.

I caught an Arirang News report on the growth of the solo economy in South Korea, which was pretty insightful.

Korean single dwellers make up 25% of all households which have about a third of their monthly income to spend freely, while the three-to-four person households have about 17%. And their needs are strikingly different.

What singles want are space-saving items, compact and chic design and small portions of perishable goods.

Property developers, retailers and manufacturers have quickly responded. “Small Buy” sections are popping up in malls offering products like mini rice cookers, small-load washing machines, single-serving cereals and even wines for one.

Since Korean home-alones don’t buy in bulk, they prefer convenience stores, which have recorded 15% annual growth while supermarkets are stagnating.

I can imagine the same insights applying to China’s millions of young, upwardly mobile, unmarried urbanites. What’s more, as amply proven by Alibaba, they love online shopping.

For now, I think our hypermarkets are safe since Malay households, in particular, are still robust and large. But I have no doubt the number of urban Malaysians staying single is also increasing.

With that, the standard notion of what makes up a Malaysian household will also change and along with it, as seen in Korea, socio-economic behaviour.

My 20-something daughters are still young and they may yet find life partners. But if they don’t, they will be among those creating Malaysia’s solo economy.

Actually, I think the solo economy will also be supported by older citizens who might be divorced, widowed or like me, living in a two-person household. I figure when it’s down to just my old hubby and me, we won’t be buying in bulk anymore (except maybe toilet rolls) as our needs will be vastly reduced.

So if my daughters are happily leading single lives and society supports their lifestyle, I guess I will just have to accept it. My consolation and hope for grandchildren now lies with my 20-year-old son who says he’s not averse to marriage.

> Governments should learn from Aunty and stop worrying. To quote “The Economist” once more: when Cupid’s hand is forced, his arrow is liable to misfire. Feedback welcome at junewong@thestar.com.my

Tags / Keywords: June H L Wong

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