Opinion

Singaporeans Show Again That Changes in Work Culture is What Will Impact Birth Rates, and Not Money

Joanne Poh

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So once again, it looks like raising Singapore’s dismal birth rate is a priority in this year’s Budget, just as it is every year. And just like every year, it looks like the carrots the government is dangling are going to do squat to raise the total fertility rate.

The problem, bluntly speaking, is that the government is dangling the wrong carrots. There have been hints aplenty that long working hours are putting a greater dampener on couple’s desire to have more kids than even the high cost of living.

What’s more, there have been signs that the intense work culture here suppresses dating and prevents singles from finding partners, some of whom would presumably want to start families.

No matter how much money you throw at couples, providing them with financial help is just one part of the equation. Here’s why:

 

Long hours at work are preventing Singaporeans from dating

Every few years, our local newspapers publish articles about how more and more Singaporeans are staying single beyond age 35.

These articles tend to blame singles for opting to pursue career success and being picky. But let’s be honest—there are heaps of Singaporeans who work long, punishing hours not because they want to but because their bosses demand it.

And many of these people are single not by choice but because they just don’t have the time or the opportunities to date. In fact, 50% of Singaporeans in a recent survey found work to be a barrier to dating.

The government has responded with the Social Development Unit, which crudely thrusts unmarried people together by organising singles mixers, which sound about as appetising as the notorious Shanghai marriage market. It is hoped that these events will make it more “convenient” for singles to couple up.

The point they’re missing is that dating isn’t something you can force through such initiatives or by nagging people that they have to do their national duty by procreating.

It’s something that happens when people have the time and energy to become the sort of person somebody would actually want to date, and interact with others in a spontaneous manner. Well, at least that’s what happens in this day and age for those who aren’t considering arranged marriages.

 

Families value work-life balance over more money

If you want to know why families aren’t having more kids, why not just ask them? Well, the families have spoken and confirmed what we already knew: in a recent report, the top issue faced by married couples was found to be balancing work and family life. Managing finances fell to the third item on the list.

The second concern, keeping the spark alive, was also closely related to a lack of time. Which makes sense: if both parties in a couple come home every day late at night completely exhausted and have little time for anything besides work, it’s hard to see how they’d be much fun to be around.

Kids take time and energy to raise, and it seems that even at the current TFR, couples are already struggling to keep it together.

Why have another kid when you are already finding it tough to find the time to bring up the one you do have? Bombarding couples with propaganda about the joys of parenting is futile when the reality they face involves long hours at the office while their kids are looked after by maids.

 

What can be done?

It’s clear that the monetary incentives thrown at parents aren’t working. It seems that until the work culture here changes to embrace flexible hours, better work-life balance and efficiency over face-time, as it hopefully will in a few generations, the low TFR is here to stay.

The issue of a growing percentage of singles is also something that we might grow out of, given time. Dating culture is fairly new in Singapore, and it will take some time before people learn to think of it as a process rather than as a necessary step to marriage, another box to check off on the list of Singaporean milestones.

20- and 30-something in Singapore are caught in the uncomfortable space between a new generation that wants to believe in love, and an older one that thinks of marriage as a ticket to stability and kids as the natural next step in the evolution of the good Asian family.

Now, the question is whether employers can allow Singaporeans enough breathing room to find time to explore relationships and, just maybe, consider whether they have space in their lives for marriage and kids.

What do you think can be done to raise the total fertility rate in Singapore? Tell us in the comments!

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Joanne Poh

In my previous life, I was a property lawyer who spent most of my time struggling to get out of bed or stuck in peak hour traffic. These days, as a freelance commercial writer, I work in bed, on the beach, in parks and at cafes, all while being really frugal. I like helping other people save money so they can stop living lives they don't like.