SINGAPORE, Feb 12 — When Nicole Lee got married in 2021, she and her husband knew they did not want to have children.
“With the constant turmoil going on globally, and uncertainty about how habitable the earth will be in their possible lifetime, I don’t feel a desire to bring any additional lives into existence to witness such a grim future,” said the 33-year-old dental surgeon.
The couple also relish the freedom and financial stability of their dual-income-no-kids (Dink) lifestyle.
“(My husband and I) both have hectic work schedules and enjoy having peace and quiet at home, the ability to pursue our interests and hobbies in our spare time and being able to travel easily,” said Lee.
“Perhaps these are selfish choices but it would also be unfair to the child to have parents who may resent or not be fully interested in them.”
Echoing her sentiments, 24-year-old final-year undergraduate Prithpal Kaur said she is on the fence about having children, as she mulls factors such as financial stability, family support and the rising cost of living.
Kaur, who is engaged and whose fiancé works in the medical field, told TODAY: “Our demanding careers might keep us busy and prevent us from spending quality time as a family, so it is important to consider when is the right time to have a child.”
Lee and Kaur’s sentiments are emblematic of a broader social phenomenon: Globally, fertility rates have been on the decline for decades as young people are becoming ever more hesitant about taking on the responsibilities of parenthood.
The worldwide statistic in 1952 put an average family as having five children. By 2020, this figure had fallen to 2.4, according to a report by the World Economic Forum.
Economic development and a declining fertility go hand in hand: A report by The Economist in June last year found that the largest 15 economies of the world had fertility rates below the replacement fertility level of 2.1.
In Singapore, the total fertility rate (TFR) hit a historic low of 1.04 in 2022, declining from 1.12 in the year before.
Analysts told TODAY last year that the figure was not alarming because it had been the Year of the Tiger when birth rates traditionally plunge. They added that they expected the TFR to climb in 2024, which is the Year of the Dragon. This is traditionally a time when birth rates in Singapore tend to jump, because it is seen as an auspicious year for some Chinese families who go by the horoscope that is linked to the Chinese lunar calendar.
Nevertheless, for years, Singapore’s TFR has been well below the replacement rate, or the rate in which each generation replaces itself.
This trend has persisted despite hefty investments and policy changes to encourage parenthood, and also despite young people saying they want kids.
A poll by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) in 2023 found that 76 per cent of youths aged 21 to 34 who were married or dating hoped to have children in the future, while an earlier survey in 2021 by the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) found that 92 per cent of married respondents wanted two or more children, but only half of them had achieved that.
TODAY’s interviews with young people and experts found that these desires often get overwhelmed by anything from the anxiety of climate change to the hyper-competitive nature of Singaporean parenting.
Experts say it is unlikely that much, if anything, can be done to change the minds of those who are certain they do not want kids.
But if Singapore figures out a way to ease the pressures of modern work life and parenting, it could encourage those who are on the fence, and create a more family-friendly home for those who do want more children.
More babies please
Since the 1980s, the Singapore Government has done a lot to try to boost the fertility rate through measures such as lengthening maternity leave, introducing paternity leave, tax cuts for parents, and the Baby Bonus, which offers cash handouts for every baby born.
Most recently in Budget 2023, the Government announced several expansions to existing schemes, including an enhanced Baby Bonus, the doubling of Government-paid paternity leave, and plans to expand childminding service options.
Singapore is not alone among developed nations in these valiant efforts.
France is often hailed as a success story for reversing its slowing TFR — at least for a while. After two decades of decline, the country’s fertility rate started picking up again in the late 1990s before hitting 2.03 in 2010, according to data from its National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies (Insee).
But its TFR began slowing again in 2011 and fell to 1.68 last year, though it is still among the highest in Europe today.
Other developed nations around the world have experimented with various combinations of parental leave, social reform, financial support and expanded care services but they, too, have had dismal results.
Does this mean that existing government policies to encourage parenthood are a waste of resources? Not at all, say experts.
Despite the lack of success that governments have had in turning around their TFR, experts say it certainly does not mean that Singapore authorities should give up trying to encourage parenthood or stop offering incentives to parents.
“There is no one-size-fits-all solution. More importantly, government support should be all encompassing rather than adopting a narrow focus,” said Associate Professor Kang Soon-Hock, who is vice-dean and head of Behavioural Science Core at the Singapore University of Social Sciences.
Beyond financial support however, these policies would do well to also focus on cultural and lifestyle changes that would make Singapore more family-friendly, experts said.
Singapore’s pro-parenthood policies do help parents, especially with costs, but cannot address the “centrality of work, career and the desire for security, comfort and social status in middle-class life,” said Associate Professor Tan Ern Ser, a sociologist from the National University of Singapore (NUS).
“Moreover, while (the Government) can try to give more time for family and children (through maternity and paternity leave), it can’t mitigate the demand of work life. For those doing cognitive or mental work, there is no hard boundary between work and non-work life, made worse by our digital economy,” he added.
Agreeing, five young Singaporeans interviewed by TODAY said a major deterrent to having kids, or more kids, is the financial and emotional burden of raising a child in Singapore today.
“(Issues such as) changes in lifestyle, relationship with your spouse, added stress (of having children) and workplace culture can’t really be solved by the current government policies,” said aviation industry professional and mother of one Susie Chan, 33.
“Ultimately government policies only help to alleviate a small portion of the challenges faced,” said Chan, adding that, while appreciated, they would not prompt her to have more kids.
Others feel that to be a good parent in hyper-competitive Singapore, they have to be able to afford the best possible care and education for their children, which in turn makes them feel that they should not have kids if this is out of reach.
The undergraduate Kaur said she would ideally like to “provide the best” for her future child and fears not being able to compete with other, wealthier parents.
“Coming from an economically disadvantaged (background) myself, I would only want to welcome a child if I am able to fully provide for and support that child in this economy,” she said.
Forget the ‘good life’, aim for ‘good enough’
One step towards making Singapore a more family-friendly place is to redefine what success means, experts said.
Instead of pursuing the “good life”, young Singaporeans may need to aim for a “good enough” life, which would allow them to be less bound by work and economic aspirations, said NUS’ Assoc Prof Tan.
“The desired outcomes would be having a sound mind, healthy body, happy family life, and a manageable work life. I believe that a ‘good enough’ life would paradoxically also enable one to be productive, through working smart, and creative,” he added.
Singaporeans also need to be less demanding on themselves as parents, experts said.
Dr Tan Poh Lin, a senior research fellow at IPS, said: “If we have a pyramid-shaped social hierarchy, with a relatively small class of individuals at the top who go through a very selective process for scarce elite positions in which they are heavily rewarded, and a large bottom class of individuals who are socially and economically less well off and secure, then no matter what birth incentives you put in place, parents will always have a strong incentive to choose quality over quantity.”
Parents may choose to have just one child, but ensure that he or she is “given all the advantages of life”, she added.
“In other words, the stakes at play in our educational, labour market and social systems determine how competitive parents will need to be.”
To help Singaporeans overcome such a mindset, having more room for risk-taking and recovery from failure, especially in the early stages of life where parents are held primarily responsible for their children’s success, could be key, said Dr Tan.
“If going to the right primary school means that one has a much better chance at receiving an elite secondary and tertiary education, and conversely if being identified as weak in some academic domains means that these chances are much lower, then parents have no choice but to give it their all,” he said.
Instead of rewarding outcomes based on a “unidimensional metric”, society could focus on rewarding effort to allow individuals room for exploration of their strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes, which can result in better job matches, prevent worker burnout and improve mental well-being, he added.
“For example, instead of ranking students narrowly on how their assignments turned out, rewards could be based on the extent to which they went the extra mile on their own, and what they have learned in the process.”
Of course, societal change cannot happen through individual effort alone. Employers and policymakers have to help create a more pro-family culture that enables Singaporeans to prioritise family life over work life if that is what they want, said Assoc Prof Tan from NUS.
This goes beyond a company’s human resource policies to encompass shifts in employers’ formal, informal, or unspoken expectations, he added.
“Would employers or bosses be willing to set more reasonable key performance indicators (KPIs), thereby allowing employees to have more family time, without having to worry about work?” he asked.
“The fact is, with tough KPIs, one could be on leave or on family holiday and still be thinking about work, which means being physically present, but mentally absent.”
Meanwhile, the Government could offer support by looking at ways to improve the quality of life for middle class families, said Associate Professor Daniel Goh, a sociologist at NUS.
Noting that poverty actually allows for a greater TFR because families have more babies as an insurance against future poverty, Assoc Prof Goh added that the considerations for middle class families are different.
“As you go more and more middle class, you tend not to have babies because you have other aspirations and you start to balance things, you start to consider the costs of having a baby,” he said.
So, providing more childcare centres, affordable housing and education could nudge couples to have children by helping them realise that the cost of having a child in an already-good environment is low, and their quality of life would not be compromised as a result of having kids, said Assoc Prof Goh.
He also highlighted the importance of speaking with young women specifically to understand their concerns about motherhood.
“Find out the diversity of perspectives and what are their considerations (around whether to have kids or not), and then start to design policies to mitigate the decline of TFR along those lines,” he added.
Lee — who echoed the thoughts of experts, that there is no point in trying to change the minds of couples who do not want to have children — said: “I think it is good to give as much support as possible to those who want to have more children, especially since it is so challenging in this day and age. Policies should target those who want children but are hindered by limited resources.
“As for those like me who prefer to be Dink, I believe it should be recognised as a valid way of life and we still contribute to society in our own ways.” — TODAY