Get ready for millennial families

Speaking at the National Day Rally this year, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong pointed to technological disruption as a defining feature of the future economy, and the resultant need to adjust the ways we work and live.

What about the impact on families? Specifically, how will the millennial generation - Singaporeans in their mid-teens to early 30s - approach marriage and parenthood? Might disruptions in industries and workplaces also disrupt plans by millennials to settle down?

One thing is clear. Millennial Singaporeans, who number nearly a million, are not about to start families because someone exhorts them to.

If and when they decide to, it will likely be because they regard marriage and parenthood to be achievable, enjoyable and celebrated.

With or without disruption, millennials won't accept that settling down means giving up on the chance to fulfil other meaningful life goals.

 

One might wonder if millennials can really have it all.

Instead of asking them to "get real", how about challenging the whole of society to "get ready"?

 
 
 
 

HOUSING

Let's start with home ownership, an aspiration of most marrying couples in Singapore.

Everywhere in the world, couples tend to start their early life together in their parents' homes or in rental units.

Nowhere else is there as extensive a high-quality public housing programme as in Singapore, making home ownership possible for 90% of the population.

For some time now, Singaporeans have become used to the idea that marriage and parenthood can wait till after careers are firmly established. What if we exercise a choice to reset priorities, settling down as we build up careers?

With 115,000 Build-To-Order flats launched from 2011 to last year, the application rate for first-timer families in non-mature estates dropped from 2.6 applicants per flat to 1.6. This means that most first-timer couples can get their flats within a few attempts. However, waiting times could stretch to three and sometimes four years.

For first-timer couples who prefer to live on their own while they wait, the Parenthood Provisional Housing Scheme (PPHS) allows them to rent an HDB flat at below-market rates. There are now about 1,900 PPHS flats, and 365 babies have been born to couples living in these flats.

Can we get flats ready earlier and reduce waiting times for more first-timers?

In fact, an option with almost no waiting time already exists through resale flats, which offer the added benefit of mutual support for those who buy near their parents' homes. The Proximity Housing Grant has made such resale flats more affordable.

The Housing and Development Board is studying ways to better support couples getting their first homes.

It will help too if home buyers keep an open mind about locations and flat types. Their first home is rarely their last. How about getting to a dream home in smaller steady steps rather than one big exhausting leap?

PRE-SCHOOL SERVICES

In Singapore, around eight in 10 mothers with young children work.

Often, mothers returning to work at the end of maternity leave look to grandparents to help with daytime caregiving.

However, we can reasonably expect fewer grandparents to be available in future. It's already happening.

The labour force participation rate for seniors aged 60-69 is 54 per cent today, up from about 35 per cent 10 years ago. This is a good thing, because seniors add experience and depth to our workforce. But it also means fewer familial care options for our young.

We must get ready to provide more places in infant-care and childcare, and deliver quality at affordable fees. It means a lot to parents that our children are in safe, nurturing environments while we work. Even stay-at-home parents appreciate the opportunities for their children to socialise and learn useful skills.

Since the Early Childhood Development Agency (ECDA) was set up in 2013, childcare provision has expanded. Localised shortfalls, mainly in new estates which attract young families, are being tackled.

To increase pre-school places, a ramp-up of teaching and care staffing is absolutely critical, which the ECDA is committed to do.

Centre-based care can also be complemented by home-based options such as nannies and better-trained domestic help.

A FRESH PERSPECTIVE

In all likelihood, millennials will start families when they feel they can enjoy parenthood even as they pursue other meaningful life goals. Yet there are many competing priorities, and parenthood rarely takes top spot; some may even see it as a hindrance. A fresh perspective is needed.

For some time now, Singaporeans have become used to the idea that marriage and parenthood can wait till after careers are firmly established. What if we exercise a choice to reset priorities, settling down as we build up careers?

First, there is the benefit of not working against the biological clock. As fertility declines with age, late-starters find it harder to conceive and often discover problems too late.

Second, as lifespans have stretched, having multiple careers in a lifetime will likely become the norm. Isn't it time to start thinking in terms of a mountain range of satisfying career peaks throughout life, rather than a single ultimate peak leading to a long continuous downhill slide thereafter?

In the era of continuous disruptions, our skills also need constant refreshing. Pausing long enough at every stage to recharge and retool will be essential.

All of this means there will never be a time when career-building is done and learning can end.

If marriage and parenthood are to feature at all, they must be priorities earlier rather than later in life. As a bonus, they also build skills useful to many aspects of life.

Such thinking can work if millennials see themselves as a new generation of pioneers, redefining how career and family aspirations are met.

WORKPLACE, COMMUNITY SUPPORT

They alone can't get things going, however. Employers and co-workers need to come on board.

Already, leave entitlements have been expanded considerably. Most employers are gracious providers but some show grudging acceptance. We need a fundamental shift in mindsets towards more family-friendly workplaces.

For starters, employees with caregiving roles need more flexibility.

The Ministry of Manpower thinks in terms of "the three flexis" - flexi- place, flexi-time, flexi-load.

Such flexi work arrangements should not be confined to parents only; their co-workers need them too to support other family members.

The wider community must also play their part. How easy is it for families to access public transport or breastfeeding facilities? Do restaurants and recreational facilities welcome families with family-friendly amenities? Is parenthood celebrated by our communities?

There is hope yet for the millennials. According to a 2014 report by the National Youth Council, marriage and having children were important life goals for about 80 per cent of 15-34-year-olds in Singapore.

In other words, aspirations for marriage and parenthood remain strong.

Through a whole-of-society effort, we can give millennials the confidence that marriage and parenthood are achievable, enjoyable and celebrated.

We should get ready by taking bold collective actions in the three key areas of housing, pre-school services, and workplace and community support.

Together, they add up to a Singapore that's a great place for families.


  • The writer is Senior Minister of State for Foreign Affairs and Transport and oversees the National Population and Talent Division.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 12, 2016, with the headline 'Get ready for millennial families'. Print Edition | Subscribe