Low Fertility in Europe and East Asia: Lessons for Singapore
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Low Fertility in Europe and East Asia: Lessons for Singapore

Parent and child hands

Low fertility rates are characteristic of many post-industrial societies. Coupled with an increasing life expectancy, the result is an ageing population and a shrinking labour force, which has implications on the vibrancy of the country, both socially and economically. This is a situation that many governments around the world have yet to see much success in addressing despite well-intentioned policy efforts.

But recent research might provide some hope to buck this trend.

At a recent public lecture and dialogue organised by the NUS Centre for Family and Population Research on 19 January 2017, Professor Mary Brinton of Harvard University compared several societies and argued that a combination of workplace culture, labour policies and gender roles can explain their differing birth rates. She pinpointed three key drivers of fertility rates that Singapore could take note of:

  1. shorter working hours could make it easier for couples to have more children;

  2. more flexible labour markets could encourage women to have children because this means that mothers are not locked out of good jobs when they return to the workforce after giving birth;

  3. to lessen the burden on working women, fathers could be more involved in raising children and looking after the household.

Senior Minister of State Mrs Josephine Teo, who also spoke at the dialogue, shared Singapore’s experience in dealing with its own low fertility challenge.  She noted that while the Government could introduce policies to support parents at the workplace, the effectiveness of the policies would still depend on workplace culture and norms. Expressing optimism about Singapore’s way forward, Mrs Teo added that employers have to be shown that adopting pro-family policies is not detrimental to their business. 

“And you have to let others know that (being pro-family) is not as difficult as they think, that it is doable, and we have to start taking those baby steps and try to bring it to a tipping point, where everyone is doing it now and it becomes a new norm."

Addressing traditional ‘Singaporean’ notions of establishing careers before settling down, Mrs Teo suggested an alternative mindset that Millennials could consider – re-setting priorities so that they fulfil their family and career aspirations simultaneously. 

Prof Brinton also cautioned against delaying parenthood to avoid “working against the biological clock” and pointed out the limitations of fertility technologies, as well as the impact on inter-generational dynamics and relations (i.e. bigger age gaps between the different generations; smaller family sizes; and supporting increasing numbers of elderly.

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