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TODAY Youth Survey: Half of singles say marriage is important, but fewer want kids amid living cost, work demands concerns

SINGAPORE — Looking back, a lot of Ms Claire Chia’s memories about her formative years are tied to how much her parents struggled to raise her and two other siblings on their father’s sole income, memories that have partially shaped the 23-year-old undergraduate’s life priorities.

TODAY Youth Survey: Half of singles say marriage is important, but fewer want kids amid living cost, work demands concerns

The TODAY Youth Survey 2021 found that what was holding millennials back from embracing parenthood is mainly the fear that they will not be ideal parents who can lavish money and attention on their future children.

  • Half of unmarried respondents in a survey by TODAY felt that marriage was important
  • But only 44 per cent said it was important or very important to have a child in future
  • Cost of living, stressful education system and lacking quality time were the top concerns among all respondents
  • Among women, health concerns related to pregnancy and childbirth was the biggest worry

SINGAPORE — Looking back, a lot of Ms Claire Chia’s memories about her formative years are tied to how much her parents struggled to raise her and two other siblings on their father’s sole income, memories that have partially shaped the 23-year-old undergraduate’s life priorities.

While the idea of nurturing a child has a “certain beauty” to it, the thought of having her own is anathema to her — and her partner agrees with this.

Furthermore, both of them intend to pursue careers in fields that they are passionate about but may not necessarily pay well. Ms Chia is considering working for a non-profit organisation, while her partner hopes to be a researcher.

“I wouldn't want to put a life out into this world without being responsible and knowing I can provide for my child,” she said.

This ultra-practical attitude that Ms Chia and her partner have towards the idea of having children is quite common among youth in Singapore, as the TODAY Youth Survey 2021 uncovered.

More than half (56 per cent) of the unmarried respondents in the survey expressed either indifference towards having a child, or said that they did not think it was important to have one.

The remaining (44 per cent) said that it was important or very important to have a child in future.

The demographically representative survey was conducted in early October, polling 1,066 respondents between the ages of 18 and 34. Among these, 762 were unmarried.

The wide-ranging survey seeks to give voice to millennials and Gen Zers on societal issues and everyday topics close to their hearts.

It covered the topics of racism, religion, LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer) attitudes, gender dynamics, the impact of Covid-19 on mental well-being and social ties, and career and material success.

SHIFTING PRIORITIES

The survey found that only two in five of the unmarried female respondents thought that having children was important.

For the men, they were equally split, with 50 per cent saying that it was important or very important to have children in future and the other 50 per cent either neutral or disagreeing that having children was important.

Singapore’s youth seem to place more importance on marriage, with 50 per cent of unmarried respondents agreeing that it was important or very important to get married in future, and only 22 per cent disagreeing.

Overall, only 38 per cent of the unmarried respondents felt that both marriage and children were important.

Professor Paulin Straughan, a sociologist from the Singapore Management University, said that the survey findings reflect the “emerging new expectations of men and women and marriage”.

Women in the past, she said, had fewer opportunities outside of homemaking and so, it became a natural trajectory for them to get married and become mothers when they came of age.

However, as more women received better education and entered the workforce, societal norms changed and they found more doors open to them.

Dr Mathew Mathews, a principal research fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies, said the resulting opportunities that came along with Singapore’s economic development and these shifting gender roles also led to changes in life priorities among younger generations.

“There are other things that younger women (now) feel are more important to accomplish, such as completing their desired level of education or gaining career success, than having children,” Dr Mathews said. “Also there is probably less stigma here for women not to have children.”

CONCERNS ABOUT HAVING CHILDREN

Far from the stereotype that millennials are selfish and self-absorbed, the survey found that what was holding them back from embracing parenthood is mainly the fear that they will not be ideal parents who can lavish money and attention on their future children.

When asked about their top concerns about being parents, the top five worries they had were:

  • Cost of living (69 per cent)
  • Stressful education system (48 per cent)
  • Lacking time to spend with children (41 per cent)
  • Uncertainty or lack of knowledge about how to raise children well (40 per cent)
  • Loss of personal or couple time, or both (34 per cent)
  • 1 per cent of those polled said that they simply did not like children

Despite the uncertain times in which they live, only 22 per cent of respondents said that climate change was a concern for them when thinking about having children, and 21 per cent said that there was the fear of a future pandemic.

Among female respondents, concerns were very much tied to how childbirth will affect their own bodies and lives.

The 539 female respondents were specifically asked about gender-specific concerns they had with regard to having a child. Of these:

  • 61 per cent said that they were concerned about health issues related to pregnancy and childbirth
  • 55 per cent said that they worried about having a lack of support in household labour and management after the birth of a child
  • 50 per cent said that they were concerned about lack of childcare support
  • 47 per cent mentioned the potential impact on their career progression
  • 36 per cent said that they feared the loss of their individual identity after being a mother

Health issues are certainly top of mind for one woman, who did not want to be identified for this interview due to a health issue. The 26-year-old lawyer discovered that she had a hereditary blood condition after undergoing a recent checkup.

The condition, which affects an individual’s haemoglobin levels, does not have an impact on her health, but she fears that it may be passed on to her children if she does become a mother.

She and her 32-year-old fiance said that having a child is not a “hard no” for them, but as with Ms Chia, they are also concerned about the cost of living in Singapore and the quality of life that they can provide for any future children.

Ideally, a child should grow up in an environment where the parents are actively involved and have the time to spend with them, the lawyer said, but with the couple's current work schedules, it will not be feasible.

Her hours are somewhat irregular because she has to work whenever she is needed.

Her fiance, who works as a product manager, has to deal with partners who live in different time zones and sometimes finds himself working throughout the day.

He said: “I want to enjoy my life and find my own purpose, but if having my own children is going to bring more pain then, no. I would rather be a helpful or nice uncle or godfather towards other people’s children.”

MARRIAGE, CHILDREN AND ETHNICITY 

Perhaps not surprisingly, children are a much bigger priority among the survey respondents who are already married, with 66 per cent of them saying that it was important or very important for them to have children or more children in future.

The survey also found some differences along ethnic lines — 92 per cent of married Indians said that it was important or very important to them to have children or more children, and 85 per cent of married Malays responded similarly.

In contrast, just 55 per cent of the married Chinese respondents said that having children was important or very important.

Dr Mathews noted that there was a link between interest in having children and cultural and religious beliefs.

“Certain cultures and religions place greater emphasis on having children. A faith community may also actively encourage its members to embark on the marriage and parenting journey,” he said.

Dr Hu Shu, a sociologist from the Singapore University of Social Sciences who specialises in gender, marriage and family, said that people who are already more in favour of marriage and having children are likely to choose to enter marriage in the first place.

Ms Siti Afiqah Gunawan, who is a stay-home mother of two, said that she was never pushed by her parents and in-laws to have a child, even after she got married.

Yet, having children was something she and her husband wanted because they felt the young ones would be “very important in glueing the family together”.

The 27-year-old, who has two boys aged three and seven months, said that whenever she or her husband have bad days, the love from their children helps them feel better. 

“They are a reminder of why you want to build a family in the first place. They are my motivation to do the best for my family,” she said.

GENDER EQUALITY WITHIN THE HOME

The survey also found that 64 per cent of all respondents were optimistic that gender equality within their household could be achieved within their lifetimes.

Slightly fewer — 60 per cent — were as confident about achieving gender equality at the workplace.

Although the difference is slight, Dr Hu said that it could be attributed to people feeling that they have more control over their lives at home than at work, since negotiations about housework and childcare take place between two partners.

“But changing the practice and culture at the workplace may appear to be out of reach for ordinary people.”

The interviewees who spoke to TODAY said that they have not faced gender inequality in their respective workplaces, but they do believe that roles within the homes are changing.

To them, equality does not necessarily mean dividing the workload evenly, but a willingness on both sides to contribute to the household in the best way they can.

Interviewees who spoke to TODAY believe that the roles of a husband and wife within a household are changing. Photo: Raj Nadarajan/TODAY

In the case of the lawyer, her fiance said that he is “not afraid of the heat and fire” and is more likely to be spending time in the kitchen cooking for the two of them than his fiancee, who he said should focus on her work because her job pays more than his.

He added: “Generally, younger people nowadays chip in whenever and wherever it makes sense to do so. There’s no housewife-only duty or husband duty, unless it's said in jest — and it’s funny only because those roles are fading away.”

WHAT NEXT?

The experts interviewed by TODAY said that the survey findings have raised several things that ought to be looked into by both Singaporeans and policymakers.

Commenting on the concerns about the cost of living, Prof Straughan said that Singapore does provide various subsidies to alleviate the cost of starting a family.

Where the costs lie, she said, is largely from the unnecessary enrichment programmes that parents get their children to take up in order to keep up with the demands of the education system.

However, even if the Government were to find ways to make the education system less stressful, the onus is also on parents to not add undue pressure on their children, she added.

Dr Mathews noted that some couples may have unrealistic expectations about parenting and this will also need to be addressed.

“It is important (for policymakers) to consider if there are perceived hindrances to the parenting journey, which should be addressed through more public communication or positive public messaging,” he said..

 

This is the third instalment of a five-part series on the findings of the TODAY Youth Survey 2021. Look out for our daily reports this week on the survey topics of racism, religion, LGBTQ attitudes, gender dynamics, the impact of Covid-19 on mental well-being and social ties, and career and material success.  We will also be holding a webinar series on Instagram and TikTok to discuss the survey findings. 

Related topics

TODAY Youth Survey Youth millennials Covid-19 marriage children gender equality

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