The recent UOB report “Singapore: Reaching A Critical Demographic Crossroad In 2018” drew media attention again to the topic of declining birth rates in Singapore.
They shared that 2018 will be the first time in recent history that the number of those below 15 year olds will equal that of above 65 year olds. At this rate, by 2050, there will just be 1.5 working adults supporting 1 elderly person.
Maybank Kim Eng economist Chua Hak Bin added that this may be decreased further as young Singaporean graduates attend the workforce later due to the growing trend of taking up masters / post-graduate degrees.
The Singapore government’s method of encouraging couples to have children through payouts has been criticized by some as ineffective and also “throwing money at the problem“.
Recently, a VWO, I Love Children, also tried a softer approach of promoting fertility and early parenthood through outdoor advertisements but it was met with public backlash for being “offensive and distasteful”.
It is not uncommon to hear some blaming Generation Y for not wanting children. However, statistics prove otherwise. Studies have shown that 83 percent of singles intend to marry, with most couples wanting 2 or more children. Clearly, Singaporean mindsets are not to blame and it is our quality of life that should be examined.
As a millennial and DINK (Dual-income, no kids) myself, here are some of my suggestions on what could be done to improve our birth rates in Singapore. I’d be leaving out suggestions on reducing the cost of childcare which has been mentioned multiple times.
I do not claim to speak for all who are in my generation so should you have other suggestions, please feel free to comment below 🙂
1) Improve work-life balance in Singapore
Singaporean workers currently work one of the longest hours in the world. Data from Singapore’s Manpower Ministry, Singaporeans clocked an average of 45.6 hours a week from January to September 2016.
The solution to increase birth rates is really to provide parents with ‘flexibility and latitude’ at the workplace, according to former NMP and Professor of Sociology, Dr. Pauline Straughan.
In her words: “We need more enlightened employers who know that granting parents time off for pressing childcare needs may actually produce happier, more productive and loyal workers.”
As a young Singaporean, I do agree very much with her. With such long hours, how would Singaporeans be able to find time to take care of and nurture more children?
Despite a big national push to get companies and workers to accept the idea of work-life balance, progress has been slow and preferences have been ignored.
To improve work life balance in Singapore, The Workers’ Party suggested that we could have a mandatory flexi-work arrangements, where companies should be obliged to cater for a work-life friendly environment for workers.
As they proposed: “Workers should be allowed to make requests for flexible working arrangements. Employers can refuse the request on reasonable business grounds, but must discuss the options available with the employee. The discussion must be duly documented, and employees may appeal the refusal if there is a dispute over the grounds for refusing a request.”
For those who are concerned that this could be detrimental to small companies, they’ve highlighted some exceptions. For instance, this could be extended to employees who work for a company with more than 20 employees for more than 6 months. We could also implement tax breaks to help businesses accommodate the flexi-work arrangements.
While we do have incentives to encourage Flexible Work Arrangements currently, it does not seem to be utilizied. The proportion of employers with at least 25 employees providing at least one form of Flexible Work Arrangements (FWA) stands at 47% in 2014. However, the FWA Incentive under the Work-Life Grant has covered only about 900 Singaporean employees in 2.5 years.
To me, it is important is that these policies are made accessible to men too. It appears that so far, the discourse about balancing children and work has always been about women.
As a society, we’re gradually moving away from the traditional idea that housework is women’s responsibility. I feel that as more fathers take on more responsibility in childcare, pro-birth policies such as those promoting flexi-work arrangements should adapt to help fathers realise their parenting aspirations.
2) More support for eldercare
With Singapore’s high cost of living, it is a necessity for many families to have both parents working in order to support the family. Currently, 75 percent of young couples in Singapore are dual-income.
Young parents do not only have to manage demanding day jobs and children, have much needed personal time but also take care of their elderly and sometimes ill parents.
The lack of support for families when it comes to caregiving continues to put tremendous stress on the family. If parents feel so squeezed and overwhelmed financially and emotionally with just taking care of one child, it is unlikely that they would want to have even more.
For the generation before me, it is not unusual for 4 to 6 siblings to share the responsibilities of taking care of elderly parents. However, for my generation, a huge proportion have only one other or no siblings to share this caregiving responsibility with.
Thus, I do agree very much that we need to provide more support for parents in taking care of not just their children but also the elderly
Firstly, we could introduce Mandatory Eldercare Leave in Singapore. This would enable children to take time-off to take care of their elderly parents or family members when they are ill.
To prevent this from being abuse, the company could request supporting materials such as medical receipts and letters from the clinics and hospitals, just like how workers give birth certificates to justify maternity and paternity leave.
We could also consider a caregiver’s allowance to alleviate the financial hardship of families where one member has to quit his or her job to care for a frail loved one.
This could be extended to not just eldercare but caring for a family member or child with special needs, or a relative who is a person with disabilities.
In particular, caregiving allowance would benefit women who make up a higher proportion of caregivers. Caregivers face greater risk of health and financial vulnerabilities as they get older due to lower lifetime earnings. When they leave the workforce to be a full-time caregiver, they often find it difficult to re-enter the labour market.
3) Have a less stressful education system
What has a highly stressful and competitive education system got to do with birth rates? Some may ask.
In a study by the Singapore Management University (SMU), it was found that although birth rates are far lower in East Asian societies such as Singapore, Hong Kong and South Korea compared to other developed economies.
Why is that so? Researchers attribute it to the “pressure felt by parents to invest large amounts of time and money in their children’s education”. They believe that if parents are spending so much time and money on each child, they would naturally have less capacity to accomodate having more children.
“Parents are often willing to forego their ideal family size for fewer children so that they can maximize their children’s success later in life.”
The same is seen in Singapore where the constant pressure felt by parents to ensure their children lead successful lives drives them to spend large amounts of time and money on their offspring.
In fact, this is increasing over time. In 2015, a Household Expenditure Survey revealed that families here spent $1.1 billion per year on tuition. This is almost double the $650 million spent 10 years ago and one-third more than the $820 million spent just five years ago.
To improve our birth rates, there is a need to reduce the stress and competitiveness in our educations system so that parents have more money, time and resources to devote to having more children.
I feel that the first step would be to tackle the problem of private tuition in Singapore. Currently, 70 percent of parents send their children for private tuition. In fact, 40 per cent of parents with children in pre-schools have tuition for them.
Their reasons for doing so were to improve their children’s grades and to help them keep up with others.
This concerns me as isn’t Singapore supposed to have one of the best education systems in the world? If so, why isn’t that sufficient for their child to have good grades and keep up?
Rather than having a situation whereby parents have to send children to tuition after school, why not maximize the time in school by giving more time and focus on each student?
NCMP Leon Perera’s recently suggested that class sizes should be reduced to not more than 30 students per class in primary and secondary schools, with the eventual goal of reducing class sizes to 20 students (In line with the OECD average).
This makes sense given that if teachers are able give more attention to each student, the children would be able to grasp the content better and keep up instead of relying on private tuition.
We could also rethink having children go through a high stakes PSLE examination at the age of 12 by providing an option for parents to opt out of PSLE and offer a 10-Year Through Train School Programme from Primary 1 to Secondary 4.
This is a source of stress for many parents who often choose to take leave or quit their jobs to spend more time with their kids and help them prepare for it. About 71 per cent of parents said helping their child with numerous tests and exams was stressful, while almost 60 per cent felt anxious as they did not know how to help their child with the challenging syllabus.
Many of us get up early to drive our kids to school because we work some of the longest hours in the world and we know we may not get to see them at night…. At work, we risk being retrenched in our 40s and 50s and then having to struggle to find a job… At night when we return home after a hard day’s work, we go back to a home where the average floor area has shrunk over the decades while the price has gone up…
For the 80% or so with no helper, more work is waiting for us at night– housework as well as coaching our children in schoolwork.
His description an accurate depiction of the lives of many of us: Having to balance our demanding jobs, caring for elderly parents, caring for children and saving for our own retirement – in an environment where cost of living has gone up so much more but salaries have not kept up.
Rather than blaming our mindsets, what Singapore really needs to do to improve our birth rates in her is first to understand, empathise and allay the concerns of potential parents.
And, that begins by first speaking and listening to the struggles of our generation.