Societal support for parents key to higher birth rates

Senior Minister of State Josephine Teo is optimistic about the new generation of Singaporean fathers wanting to be involved in parenting.
Senior Minister of State Josephine Teo is optimistic about the new generation of Singaporean fathers wanting to be involved in parenting. ST PHOTO: WONG KWAI CHOW

Denmark and the Republic of Korea are two countries that have committed significant state resources to boosting birth rates. But the results are strikingly different.

Denmark managed to reverse a decline in birth rates that started in the 1960s and fell to a low of 1.38 in 1983. From the 1990s, its total fertility rate (TFR) has hovered at around 1.7. It's not at replacement level but neither is it worryingly low, at least for now.

Korea, on the other hand, has seen its TFR decline steeply from the 1960s and remain stubbornly around 1.2 since the 2000s.

MARRIAGE AND BIRTH TRENDS

The two societies hold fundamentally different views towards marriage and parenthood which reflect their respective shared values.

It is not uncommon for Danish couples to live together and have children first, before deciding whether or not to marry. Among Danish women, the average age at first birth is about 29 years, and the average age at first marriage is 32 years.

Cultural differences seem to make parenting a more resource-intensive and stressful experience for Asian parents. Sociologists have observed a pattern of "intensive parenting". State-funded subsidies can be as generous as in the Nordic countries, but the benefits can be negated by Asian parents funnelling the savings to more intensive pre-school or beyond-school preparation, for example.

It is the opposite in Korea - the average age at first marriage is 29.8 years, while the average age at first birth is 31 years. In recent years, couples are also marrying and having children later in life, a development officials attribute to weakened job prospects and a heightened sense of insecurity among the young.

Danish women start earlier and have more children on average. The same is true in other Nordic countries.

As in most East Asian societies, Koreans have clear preference to embed child-raising in well-established family structures. Childbirths outside of marriage have remained below 2 per cent.

Singapore is culturally similar to our East Asian neighbours in that marriage comes before having children. Marriage as an institution and precursor to parenthood remains a firmly held value among Singaporeans, and is an aspiration we will continue to strongly support.

But many young couples in Singapore have an added aspiration - home ownership before marriage or at least before a child is born.

Unlike for couples elsewhere, or their parents who tended to live in rented or shared housing after marriage, home ownership is within reach of most young Singaporean couples today. As a result, more are choosing to wait.

With each successive generation too, young women in more developed Asian economies have enjoyed improved opportunities in education and work, much like their Nordic sisters.

In the process, they gained financial independence and shook off the stigma of singlehood. Increasingly, it seems that marriage and parenthood are nice to have but not essential.

WORKPLACE AND PARENTING NORMS MATTER

 
 

In helping young couples achieve both career and parenthood aspirations, the support of employers and co-workers feature heavily.

Even in Denmark where 60 per cent take up paternity leave entitlements, a minority of workplaces send discouraging signals to fathers.

It is worse in Korea which has similar paternity leave provisions but sees less than2 per cent usage. Expectations to participate in after-work socialising add to the already-long work hours.

Nonetheless, the overall workplace culture in Denmark gives strong support to family life. There's deeper recognition among corporate leaders that a family-friendly work environment makes them more attractive as employers, promotes productivity and is good for business.

In all societies, parents want to do what's best for their children.

However, cultural differences seem to make parenting a more resource-intensive and stressful experience for Asian parents. Sociologists have observed a pattern of "intensive parenting".

State-funded subsidies can be as generous as in the Nordic countries, but the benefits can be negated by Asian parents funnelling the savings to more intensive pre-school or beyond-school preparation, for example.

These factors together contribute to the trends in TFR in the Nordic countries, East Asian societies and Singapore.

REASONS FOR CHEER

Against this backdrop, there are still reasons for cheer.

Last year, there were 23,805 marriages in Singapore, the second-highest in more than a decade.

We also had 33,793 SG50 babies, the highest in more than a decade.

TFR was 1.24, slightly higher than the average TFR of 1.22 in the first half of the decade.

One curiosity is the slight dip in TFR from 1.25 a year ago, despite more births.

The reason is that TFR measures the average number of births per woman of child-bearing age (aggregated across five-year age groups of the women).

While more babies were born, the number of women entering the peak child-bearing age groups (25-39 years) had also risen. These women were born in the decade starting from 1988 and are mostly children of our Baby Boomer generation. The oldest of this cohort was just 27 years old in 2015. Given that more in this cohort are choosing to marry later, their babies have yet to arrive. This explains why TFR may not see an uptick even with higher births.

MAKING CONDITIONS MORE FERTILE

In the last few months, I have asked to meet a variety of people to understand the current context behind marriage and parenthood in Singapore. They come from all walks of life and include parents with few or many children, social scientists, students, social media activists as well as employers.

Research on other countries' experiences have also provided useful insights.

My sense is that in comparison to other East Asian societies, conditions in Singapore are reasonably fertile for marriage and parenthood.

We have sound economic fundamentals. Even as the economy undergoes structural change, employment levels remain high. Couples have access to affordable public housing and good quality education for their children. Families are getting more support in caring for seniors, particularly in healthcare.

There is no silver bullet - no single policy intervention - that will boost birth rates.

The key lies in strengthening Singapore as a great place for families.

Government action is needed to give parents better assurance of help, for example, through legislating adequate leave provisions or organising childcare.

But government alone will not move the needle.

Equally vital are positive attitudes towards marriage and bringing up children, and a strong sense of community support for parents particularly from employers and co-workers.

Collectively, we must make marriage and parenthood more achievable, enjoyable and celebrated.

Then, wedding bells will ring and storks will come flying.

  • The writer is a Senior Minister of State, Prime Minister's Office, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Transport
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 03, 2016, with the headline 'Societal support for parents key to higher birth rates'. Print Edition | Subscribe