Helping more families cope

THE growth of one-person households isn't the only change in family forms that will have to be taken into account here. Another is the rise of households with married couples who are childless or not living with their children. Whither the nuclear family with two or more generations under one roof?

The traditional family structure is still dominant but its proportion has declined - from 56 per cent in 2000 to 49 per cent last year. That matters as the longstanding basis of care and support of individuals - the young, aged and infirm - is the strength of the immediate family and, to an extent, the soundness of extended family ties.

Should kinship platforms wither and other options are sought increasingly, society will come up against the practical limits of state welfare financed by taxes (a growing burden upon a shrinking base of workers), and of safety nets offered by voluntary welfare organisations (whose resources will be stretched by competing needs).

Family changes are inevitable, given the confluence of various trends, some long in the making and others recent. Biological and tribal links were key when survival and child-rearing needs ranked supreme.

As broad structures for collective security, education and healthcare emerged, family transition was marked. And as women became breadwinners too, man-woman and parent-child relations were affected. Low fertility (fuelled by socio-economic and cultural changes), low mortality (aided by modern science), and wealth accumulation (a result of sustained economic growth) also reshaped the family, impinging on gender equity, forms of partnership, and intergenerational relations.

Thus, ideological pluralism for some nations is less a matter of choice than one of necessity - with recent marriages at greater risk of failing, more marriages involving foreign spouses, same-sex relationships, and role reversals - for example, instances of seniors still supporting their grown children in some way.

Against this backdrop, it would be too much to expect the formation of a family policy framework here that is explicit, neat and comprehensive.

However, a sound understanding of long-term dependency pressures faced by families will be crucial, as noted at the Ministry of Social and Family Development's recent Social Service Partners Conference.

The objective should be the adoption of strategies to help ensure self-help, state policies and charitable schemes can dovetail to provide a durable matrix of support that befits the changing times.

Official and social attitudes will also have to evolve in tandem to meet fresh challenges as families are transformed.