One thing that struck me from the report by the National Population Secretariat is how it frames the issue of precipitously low birthrate through the question of (opposite-sex) marriage. All over, data about births is interwoven with data about marriage. There appears to be an assumption that you cannot divorce one consideration from the other. I accept that the present reality is that they are closely linked, but a radical thinker will say they do not have to be. To try to solve the problem of low birthrate only within the confines of low marriage rate is to make things doubly hard for ourselves. It becomes a problem within a conundrum.
Lots of people can be good parents, raising children, even if they are not heterosexually married. Why not encourage them to be without first demanding that they should hit the jackpot of finding a Mr or Mrs Right?
Failing to acknowledge this, resources are expended on matters that are tangential to the problem of low birthrate, e.g. the government getting into the matchmaking business and launching campaigns (yes, more campaigns, as if we’re not sick of them) like Romancing Singapore. But every effort put into a tangential factor means less put into directly addressing the problem. Efficiency in problem solving is reduced.
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The thing about biology is that you don’t need to be married to make babies. But the thing about today’s lifestyle is that even when you are married, a lot of other considerations come in before you decide to have a baby. A thousand more factors have to be thought through before you have a second . . . and we need 2.1 babies from every adult womb in a population to replace ourselves. If we insist on moral disapproval of single parenthood and only want married women to bear children, then with the going rate of only 70 percent of citizen females married by age 30, we’re expecting each of these women to bear 3.0 children in order to achieve replacement rate. Very tall order.
Wouldn’t it be easier to spread the burden, to aim for everyone, male or female, to raise one child? That means a spousal couple will raise two children but singles raise one each. Of course it means getting rid of prejudice against single-parenthood, and along the way, shouldn’t we also get rid of prejudice against same-sex couples?
On this note, let me highlight a study recently published in the peer-reviewed journal Pediatrics with a summary web-published in New Scientist:
Children of lesbian parents do better than their peers
08 June 2010 by Jim Giles
The children of lesbian parents outscore their peers on academic and social tests, according to results from the longest-running study of same-sex families.
The researchers behind the National Longitudinal Lesbian Family Study say the results should change attitudes to adoption of children by gay and lesbian couples, which is prohibited in some parts of the US.
The finding is based on 78 children who were all born to lesbian couples who used donor insemination to become pregnant and were interviewed and tested at age 17.
The new tests have left no doubt as to the success of these couples as parents, says Nanette Gartrell at the University of California, San Francisco, who has worked on the study since it began in 1986.
Compared with a group of control adolescents born to heterosexual parents with similar educational and financial backgrounds, the children of lesbian couples scored better on academic and social tests and lower on measures of rule-breaking and aggression.
A previous study of same-sex parenting, based on long-term health data, also found no difference in the health of children in either group.
“This confirms what most developmental scientists have suspected,” says Stephen Russell, a sociologist at the University of Arizona in Tucson. “Kids growing up with same-sex parents fare just as well as other kids.”
The results should be considered by those who oppose the right of gay and lesbian couples to adopt children, adds Gartrell. A handful of states, including Florida, prohibit same-sex or unmarried couples from adopting, although many of the state laws are being challenged in the courts.
“It’s a great tragedy in this country,” says Gartrell. “There are so many children who are available for adoption but cannot be adopted by same-sex couples.”
Over 100,000 children are awaiting adoption in the US, says the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, a research and advocacy organisation based in New York. The institute estimates that just 4 per cent of all adopted children – around 65,000 – live with gay or lesbian parents, despite research suggesting that same-sex couples may be more willing than heterosexual couples to adopt.
Journal reference: Pediatrics, DOI: 10.1542/peds.2009-3153
How are singles going to raise a child when it is difficult enough for a couple? you might ask. Fair question, which I will come back to later.
And what are the implications of permitting, nay, encouraging singles to raise children? Well, for the women, it means a massive enlargement of sperm banks. For men, it means ovum banks, advances in in-vitro fertilisation and developing a proper framework (legal, medical, social oversight, etc) for surrogate pregnancy (which may involve women from other countries). For both men and women, it means an expansion of adoption procedures, involving abandoned kids from other countries if need be.
(Consider this: We have something like 12,000 abortions every year [source] a high number compared to citizen births of only about 30,000. And when Member of Parliament Christopher de Souza asked the Minister for Health on or around 27 August 2008 what would have been the effect on our population had these abortions been avoided, the minister waltzed around the question, providing no numbers.)
And not least, it means a massive overhaul of taxation and child support policies to level the playing field for different kinds of parents: single, same-sex married and opposite-sex married. Everybody should be encouraged to do his part, and everybody gets the same benefits.
Every one of these ideas will surely meet with plenty of people saying “it’s out of the question” for any number of reasons; or “it’s too radical”. But a non-radical approach is not solving the demographic problem. We do need to be radical, and being radical means cutting through the thicket of customary “impossible to contemplate” barriers.
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As I mentioned in Part 1, there are two broad dimensions to the problem: People must want to have children; people must be able to afford the time and have the income to raise children.
Let’s deal with the question of wanting children first. Actually, I don’t think this is a big problem. I believe it is latent in humans to want children. We can tweak it by nudging our culture in ways that make it hip for 30-year-olds to be pushing a pram or having a toddler in hand, but I don’t think it is an uphill struggle to plant the thought of having children into people. It’s in our DNA.
The problem is that we hold back that expression of our DNA due to rational calculations of time and money. Instead, we direct what time and money we have into status projects — a bigger flat, flashier car, distant holidays, ever larger television set, now with 3D. We demand of employees ever longer hours at work, so that the bottom line is blacker and the head-office building can be more sumptuously fitted out.
One of these days, we are going to realise the folly of all that. We are figuratively eating our children to feed today’s consumerism and vanity. As a society, we are sacrificing our future sustainability for a present-day ego fix.
The solution therefore has to be at the level of culture change. We have to begin seeing status-driven consumption as vulgar and raising children as noble and socially expected. Grand condominiums, fine dining, designer clothes — all these should be viewed for what they are: a last hurrah before the ship sinks. We have to learn to live humbly so that time and money can be set aside as investment in another generation, an investment that will have payback at both the economic and emotional levels.
A huge number of policy revisions will be needed to nudge and support such a culture change, from home design to job design, from expanding childcare facilities to instituting various penalties for conspicuous consumption. It’s a complete overhaul of the role of government from one of making people feel good/rich now (so you’ll vote us back into office, thank you very much) to one of encouraging demographic sustainability just like how we now think it important to work towards environmental sustainability.
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How will singles ever be able to raise children by themselves? was the question I left dangling earlier. Here again, some radical thinking is called for.
Most singles in their twenties and thirties have a huge resource at hand: their parents, in their fifties, sixties and even seventies, who are in good health, beneficiaries of our public health success over the years. Their increasing longevity has somehow been turned into a fiscal problem, the desired solution to which is to get them to stay in the workforce to age 67. Many people actually hate the idea.
I say: Let them retire when they want. Let them, if they so choose, be happy grandparents helping their unmarried sons or daughters raise children. The social payback (without even considering the future economic payback) is many times better than keeping them at the drudgery of work.
What about the money angle? We have to accept that there is no easy solution. We can keep people at work for long hours and long years in pursuit of income and ever-higher “living standards”, but the social cost is fewer children, and aging population (with nightmarish cost burdens) and an uncertain future for us as a society, or we can be frugal today for a more assured future tomorrow. Whether singles or couples, until the new badge of honour is living frugally but with a child in hand, we”ll never close our demographic deficit.