SINGAPORE: The number of babies born last year was the lowest in eight years, setting off alarm bells for Singapore’s future demographic profile.
The decline in birth numbers has been tied to the rise in the median age of first-time mothers, from 29.7 in 2009 to 30.6 last year, suggesting that more women are putting off childbearing.
By contrast, a number of European countries witnessed a baby bump earlier this decade after the age at childbearing stopped climbing, as more women get around to having the children they had earlier postponed.
Why hasn’t the age at childbearing stopped climbing in Singapore? Three factors are driving fertility delay: Inconsistent messaging, constraints and overconfidence.
YOUNG SINGAPOREANS FACE INCONSISTENT MESSAGING
For many young Singaporeans, both men and women, the life script from early adolescence to our early twenties is guided by a clear consensus from parents, schools and the larger society on how to live your best life: Study hard to secure your best possible future prospects, romantic relationships can wait, and avoid an unintended pregnancy at all costs.
The messaging becomes much less tidy in the mid-twenties, when most people have completed their formal schooling. The pressure and drive to succeed have not slackened. Indeed, early career is often the time when workers face most scrutiny and evaluation, as organisations seek to pick out the most promising candidates to groom.
At the same time, young people are also suddenly expected to have an active dating life, with an eye towards marriage in the not-so-distant future.
The abrupt switch in messaging can be jarring and difficult to reconcile with the notion that success comes through hard work and personal sacrifice, which may have been interpreted as putting a pause on family formation.
In 2017, a survey of 2,940 singles aged 21 to 45 found that nearly six in 10 were not dating with a view towards marriage. Moreover, among those not dating, around 40 per cent cited wanting to focus on their career or studies, in line with the familiar earlier life script most Singaporeans grew up with.
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Beyond the sudden changes in expectations, young people today are also exposed to alternative viewpoints which argue that traditional marriage is unnecessary or even undesirable in an age of personal autonomy and expression, and which associate parenthood with overpopulation, environmental degradation and climate change.
In the absence of a clear authoritative social or scientific consensus, these viewpoints diminish any personal desire to get married or have children.
Although around two-thirds of Singapore residents will eventually get married by their early thirties, this inconsistent messaging results in a weak impetus to do so at younger ages, producing median ages at first marriage of 28.4 among women and 30 among men in 2017.
COUPLES FACE PRACTICAL CONSTRAINTS
Even couples who have made the decision to settle down and have children early might find their plans stymied by practical constraints.
Eligible Singaporeans have a strong financial incentive to apply for subsidised Built-to-Order flats, which come with up to three years of waiting time even after successful balloting. Although rental options for married couples waiting to collect their keys have expanded, couples may prefer to give birth only after their flat is ready.
Apart from housing considerations, a climate of economic insecurity and the large salary chasm between top-tier and mid-level employees can create excessively competitive work environments, especially among those who have already invested heavily in their education.
To prove themselves, employees may feel pressured to put in more hours and remain mentally engaged with their jobs at all times.
Such high demands on worker physical and mental health can take a toll on family life and even interest in marital sex. A recent survey released in July found that working hours and work-related stress were the top reasons for lack of interest in sex among Singapore newlyweds.
Since the probability of conception per cycle is twice as high among couples who have unprotected sex every other day compared to those only have sex once a week, these factors can substantially lengthen the interval from marriage to parenthood.
OVERCONFIDENCE IN TECHNOLOGY AND BIOLOGY
Many Singaporeans may also be overly sanguine when it comes to risks associated with postponing marriage and childbearing.
The same survey estimates that nearly 70 per cent of couples see assistive reproductive technologies as a panacea for fertility issues. Nearly 75 per cent did not know that success rates are lower than 50 per cent, or that the rates are highly age dependent.
The tendency to be overly optimistic regarding one’s chances of successful pregnancy is by no means peculiar to Singaporeans.
Multiple studies in developed countries document that women tend to greatly overestimate the probability of pregnancy at all ages, especially after age 40. The evidence suggests that men are even less informed about the effects of age on fertility.
Apart from the risks of involuntary infertility, there is also low awareness of the increased risks of birth defects, complications during pregnancy, births associated with delayed childbearing, or the health risks of in-vitro fertilisation to both mother and child
PUSH BACK AGAINST INFORMATIONAL INTERVENTIONS
We all love to hear what we already believe. Stories about celebrities who achieve motherhood in their forties or even fifties are popular. The hype is selectively played up in mainstream and social media.
This narrative sends a positive and reassuring message which seems more consistent with notions of modern womanhood.
As a result, many put their faith in the unfounded fertility myth that age is no obstacle to fertility, since a woman is in good health and has access to the latest reproductive technologies.
By contrast, public education campaigns can come across as insensitive, akin to asking an older woman her age, or even appear coercive, by pushing a deadline on those not yet ready or able to conceive. To others who remain optimistic, the messages can seem irrelevant (“It won’t happen to me”).
Mass campaigns can also lack a personal touch. Ultimately, it’s important to be able to trust that the messenger is not simply interested in improving the outlook for population ageing, but truly has each individual’s best interests at heart.
CHILDBEARING IN A CARING SOCIETY
The decision to have a child is a personal choice that involves not only practical considerations, but also brings into question the meaning of life itself.
In a competitive world where success is defined by one’s relative ranking in academics or career achievement, couples may feel compelled to delay parenthood because it would be irresponsible to do otherwise.
What can help turn this corner on marriage and parenthood? We need Singaporeans in their 20s and 30s to make dating, marriage and family a priority, rather than take a backseat to career success.
In fact we need Singaporeans to have that attitude at all ages, where parents can enjoy their children and impart critical family values beyond that of individual achievement. Helping our children reach their full potential as creative individuals is a laudable goal, but should not be synonymous with loading their schedules with tuition and enrichment lessons.
As a mother of three asked, “Where is the joy?”
Why make childbearing a priority earlier in life, if it is going to be burdensome and fraught with uncertainty?
A caring society goes beyond signalling a willingness to merely accommodate parenthood – it recognises a broader definition of success and advocates for children of all academic ability levels.
The caring goes both ways: Parents should emphasise that a meaningful life involves not only personal achievement, but also enjoying family time and serving society to the best of their ability.
Tan Poh Lin is an assistant professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.