Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Solving The Baby Puzzle

From Todayonline:

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Solving The Baby Puzzle

Paulin Straughan

AS FERTILITY rates continue to fall in developed economies worldwide and governments struggle to design comprehensive pro-family packages to arrest these trends, it is critical that we identify the structural and cultural constraints modern economies pose to parenthood commitment.

Three main developments in recent history must be addressed in reviewing the issue of low birth rate: the change in women's social status, the increased demands of paid work, and the evolution of the sacred child ideology.

The social status of Singaporean women has continued to improve since the nation state obtained independence in 1965. Women were granted equal access to formal education, skills training — and paid work. The rise of the dual-income family has resulted in serious contradictions in the way family life can be lived. This, together with the continued devaluation of domestic work including child rearing, and the increase in demands of paid work, has made it increasingly difficult for young adults to embrace both work and family.

Work in contemporary economies has been restructured such that we now have to work longer hours and be flexible with when we can work as we now service a global, borderless economy that crosses multiple time zones. The performance-based system and a tendency towards contract work also keep employees always anxious about their job. How can we commit to long-term invests like marriage and parenthood when we are uncertain about the future?

And as we have fewer children, each child becomes more precious. As pregnancy becomes a more conscientious decision, parents are also mindful of their responsibility to the child. Contemporary parenthood demands intensive and expensive methodologies which require total commitment from the parents — particularly the mother. Concurrently, paid work calls for total commitment as well — and both require the players to be on call 24/7.

How can we realistically serve two such demanding masters? What can be done to alleviate the contradictions impact?

Given our very pragmatic outlook, it is no wonder that more young adults are delaying family formation in lieu of career advancement.

It is thus essential that we start to place value on child rearing and domestic work — by putting an economic value on commitment to family work, and not merely paying lip service and bestowing motherhood labels on how noble raising children is.

For parents, the time that is not spent at office work is presumably spent at home work. That work is currently invisible. A radical perspective is to pay the mother for her work at home as well. The question is, should the employer be paying, or should the government shoulder this?

We should also embrace policies that centre on a dual-income family, and not assume that there is always a full-time homemaker at home to weave the work-family interface.

Such a perspective would seriously re-look the ease with which employers can call on employees to take on overtime work or business travels. Work hours will be constructed around a typical schedule which facilitates family work — so that parents can be home when children are expected to be home. In short, we can no longer render domestic work as invisible.

But perhaps the most important constraint is that which we place on the expectations of children. Singapore parents see formal education as the most reliable means of upward social mobility, and we must review the demands we place on our children in the area of academic excellence.

For a shrinking young population, is it still necessary for children to go through so many levels of streaming? For example, if indeed the IB programme is deemed superior, why not let the entire cohort enjoy these instead of allocating limited places through streaming?

I understand the need for special streams to help those with learning disabilities stay in the formal education system — but I do question the need to segregate the average and above average from the "top".

Because of the competition to get into better schools, and the limited places available in such desired programmes, parents shoulder undue stress in their obsession with giving their young children a head start in life. Given the sustained low fertility rate we have suffered, each child is so very precious. Can we not afford to educate each of these children to the best of their potential?

These proposals may seem radical and discriminatory to those who are free from family responsibilities. But if we are serious about arresting the alarming demographic trends of delayed marriage, low fertility and a greying population, we must think out of the box.

A system that favours singlehood has resulted in family formation being relegated to the back burner. Increasingly, policies are governed by the principle that the family exists to service the needs of the economy. To revert the direct effects of such governance, we must be willing to reposition the family to the centre, and put the needs of the family first.

Is such a proposal that radical? After all, we are talking about the long-term social health of our society.

The government is now looking to boost existing measures to make Singapore a more pro-family place and perk up the birth rates. Any holistic review must tackle the root cause of the problem, and recognise that people find it hard to balance work and family and that it is impossible to serve two masters without any sacrifice.

The writer is a sociologist and the vice-dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, National University of Singapore. The views in the article are her personal views.


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