Flexi-work arrangements could help boost fertility rate: Experts

Singapore's total fertility rate rose slightly to 1.12 last year, up from the historic low of 1.1 in 2020. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Lockdowns amid the spread of Covid-19 did not lead to a baby boom but lessons learnt from work-from-home (WFH) arrangements enforced during the pandemic could offer Singapore a solution to its fertility woes.

Singapore Management University sociology professor Paulin Straughan calls remote working a potential game-changer, and if properly instituted, it will allow young couples to invest in their careers and also grow their families.

As many people are prioritising their career development, it is important to evolve systems that allow people to balance work and family, she said, adding that the pandemic has shown that it is possible to manage a profitable business with employees working from home.

Figures from around the world showed there was a baby drought during the pandemic. Significant declines were recorded in Europe and the United States, with half the people in Germany and France who had planned to have a child in 2020 postponing it.

In Singapore, figures from the Government’s annual Population in Brief report showed that in 2021, citizen births continued the decade-long decline seen after the spike in the Year of the Dragon in 2012, an auspicious year in the Chinese zodiac. There were 42,663 live births that year compared with 39,654 in 2011.

In 2021, citizen births dipped to 31,713 from the 31,816 in 2020, amid Covid-19 uncertainties and delays in marriage and child-bearing plans.

But the resident total fertility rate (TFR) recovered slightly to 1.12 births per woman in 2021 from the historic low of 1.1 in 2020.

The figure for 2019 was 1.14. A TFR of 2.1 is needed for a population to replace itself.

The National Population and Talent Division said it has no target TFR and that the Government remains strongly committed to supporting Singaporeans who want to get married and have children.

“Raising birth rates will continue to be key to tackling Singapore’s long-term demographic challenges. Nonetheless, decisions to get married and have children are personal, and there is no target TFR that we are aiming for,” a spokesman said.

While there were fewer babies born amid the uncertainties, more people did tie the knot in 2021 compared with 2019 before the pandemic, according to the population report released in September.

Prof Straughan said that while there will always be people who choose to live their married lives as “Dinks” (double income no kids), most who marry would aspire to have children.

Besides WFH arrangements, she said, people in their 20s could also take time off from work, and resume their careers afterwards when the children no longer need intensive care.

Economics professor Walter Theseira, from the Singapore University of Social Sciences, said it is important to normalise WFH and flexi-work arrangements. Workers should not see their careers hampered when adopting such measures.

“With a poorly taken-up policy, there will tend to be differences in how workers who work from home and workers who don’t are assessed at work, and that will mean that families will feel that choosing these options will set them back in their career,” he said.

However, it will not be easy to mandate a WFH arrangement, said Institute of Policy Studies senior research fellow Christopher Gee.

“It will not be so simple to implement for everyone – nurses, for example, or people whose jobs are tied to their workplace. Knowledge workers have the most flexibility and are most capable of WFH but even for them, it will be hard to mandate something,” he added.

Knowledge workers include engineers, physicians and others whose main capital is knowledge, as opposed to “hand” workers like craftsmen and “heart” workers such as therapists.

Prof Theseira said for jobs where remote work is not possible, the question is whether there should be compensating benefits for them.

The Marriage and Parenthood survey showed that married couples do want to have more children. Although half of the 3,017 married respondents, aged between 21 and 45 years, had one or no children, 92 per cent indicated that they wanted to have two or more children.

This was similar to the findings of past surveys conducted in 2016 and 2012.

The top three common reasons cited by married respondents who did not want to have more children were financial cost, having enough children already, and the stress of raising children.

As for the 2,848 singles surveyed, the top three reasons cited were the high cost of raising children, lack of time and/or energy to take care of children, and uncertainty about future income.

In a recent commentary published in The Straits Times, assistant professor Tan Poh Lin from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy and Mr Gee suggested having a universal childcare and kindergarten system, with the Government heavily subsidising it.

“Just as we have mandatory state provision of primary school education, we might have state-provided and heavily-subsidised pre-school and childcare as well,” Mr Gee told The Sunday Times.

He added that Singapore could draw lessons from high-income Scandinavian countries.

He cited Denmark, which managed to boost its total fertility rate from a low of 1.4 in the 1980s to nearly 1.8 last year. The country of 5.8 million people invests heavily in childcare and parental leave, and has a better gender balance with men contributing more at home, he said.

Figures from Scandinavian countries and France, which has one of the highest TFR in Europe at 1.84 children per woman in 2020, show fertility rates are generally higher in countries where more women go to work. A critical ingredient is the support given to working women, either through flexible work arrangements or by government intervention in areas such as childcare.

But Prof Theseira said the focus should not be on supporting working mothers alone.

“That is also why in part there has been a big push for paternity leave and to encourage men to take such leave. Otherwise, it sets the impression that women are the only ones taking maternity leave, they work less than men, and men are more committed to the job, with all the consequences that these have on career advancement for women,” he added.

In a speech to social service practitioners on Oct 10, Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong said the Government is reviewing multiple policies to help grow young families.

They include housing policies, to help first-time home buyers secure a flat quickly and affordably.

The Government will also look at establishing more family-friendly workplaces, and review leave measures to better support parents in managing work and family commitments. Details of such changes are expected in 2023.

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