As Singapore struggles with very low fertility rate of 1.24 — far below the recommended replacement rate of 2.1 to maintain population levels — what can we learn from the failures and successes in East Asian and European societies to help us reverse this downward trend?
Leading Harvard scholar and Reischauer Institute Professor of Sociology Professor Mary C Brinton delivered an engaging lecture titled “Postindustrial fertility rates in East Asia and Europe: Lessons for Singapore” on 19 January at the Shaw Foundation Alumni House to a rapt audience of 250 NUS faculty, staff, students and guests. The session was organised by the Centre for Family and Population Research and the Global Asia Institute at NUS. Mrs Josephine Teo, Senior Minister of State for the Prime Minister’s Office; Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Transport, graced the event as the Guest of Honour.
Prof Brinton’s research suggests that some social norms will need to change before we can give our birth rates a nudge upwards; long work hours, imbalanced gender roles, and a rigid labour market are not conducive for families.
Prof Brinton explained that long work hours for women and men make it more likely that some women will choose career over marriage and childrearing, while men will find it more difficult to contribute to housework and childrearing. “Very long work hours are detrimental to families. They make it very hard for couples to have more than one child, even if reliable childcare is available,” said Prof Brinton.
“In Japan it is very striking that for the last 30 years, 60 per cent of their women are out of the labour market by the time they had their first child. It has barely changed. The majority of women have dropped out — that is how stark the choice is,” she added.
Countries where women are expected to both work and be the primary caregiver — or what is known as the “second-shift” phenomenon — tend to have low birth rates, as observed in Japan and South Korea. This is in contrast to countries where it is common to have both parents take on the roles of caregiver and careerist interchangeably, as seen in Sweden, which has a more encouraging birth rate at about 1.9.
The lecture also included a lively dialogue between Prof Brinton and Mrs Teo, moderated by Professor Jean Yeung, Director of the Centre for Family and Population Research at NUS. The audience had the opportunity to pick their brains on whether change should first come from shifting cultural norms or institutions, to how elements like intense competition in resources might also affect the birth rate in Asian societies.
The panel also discussed about the flexibility needed in labour markets. Mrs Teo believed that when flexibility is provided, it was best to provide it to as many employees as possible. “If it is offered as a limited benefit only for a certain small group of employees, it makes it very difficult for this type of arrangement to be sustainable because the resentment is bound to build up,” explained Mrs Teo. Prof Brinton weighed in, noting that “this involves trust between employers and employees. But let’s try for it. Let’s assume trust, rather than distrust”.
While Singapore’s low birth rate and greying population may paint a bleak picture, Mrs Teo has a positive outlook. “In my view, there is hope yet for the millennials,” she shared, noting that a National Youth Council report in 2014 showed that marriage and having children were important life goals for about 80 per cent of 15-to-34-year-olds in Singapore.
“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,” she said.