Could a major reason for Singapore’s appallingly low Total Fertility Rate(TFR) be the appallingly high GINI Coefficient? I’m not referring to the struggles of the lower income in trying to raise children, though that must definitely be another major factor. I’m referring to something else altogether: People tend to marry amongst their own social class, and when the GINI coefficient is so high, the number of people within the social class you can access, becomes much smaller. So it’s harder to find partners, more challenging to marry, and so there is less opportunity to have babies.
Anecdotally, many of my friends in Singapore are very unwilling to marry and start families with another person whose income is way below theirs. Most people don’t mind if it’s maybe, 10% different, but if you earn 5x more than your date, and your date’s prospects aren’t likely to change, chances are you’re not going consider that date as a potential spouse.
On the other hand, I’ve heard from friends in European countries, that there are very little raised eyebrows or even personal consideration, when a university lecturer marries a bus driver.
Maybe it boils down to this:
Cleaner S$800 Bus driver S$1,800
Cleaner S$5,502 Bus driver S$6,193
Cleaner S$2,085 Bus driver S$3,910
Cleaner S$5,470 Bus driver S$6,260
Cleaner S$3,667 Bus driver S$4,480
(Source: https://sghardtruth.wordpress.com/2012/05/19/what-singapore-can-learn-from-europe-by-tommy-koh/ By Tommy Koh, For The Straits Times, May 19, 2012)
I was invited to a recent Fireside chat with Yam Ah Mee, the PA chief. One of the comments he made that really got me thinking was this: In Singapore, it’s not that married people are having too few children. It’s that too few people are getting married!
I went to SingStats to check up the statistics (Ref: http://www.singstat.gov.sg/stats/themes/people/popinbrief2011.pdf ), and found that he was right. Amongst 40-49 year old women who have ever been married, the average number of children they had was a fairly healthy 2.08 (2.1 is the ideal replacement rate). Meaning that a good proportion of married couples are have 1 -3 children by the time the wife hits menopause. Only a mere 8.6% of 40-49yr old married women are childless. On the other hand, when you include all women in the average, the TFR is only 1.2. Marriage rates have fallen over the last 10 years, from about 46-48 per 1000, to 35-38 per 1000. 1 in 5 females are single in their late 30s. 1 in 4 males are single in their late 30s.
So why aren’t Singaporeans getting married?!
True, cultural norms are shifting, and people want to marry later. But I’m sure many of us also know friends and relatives who are/have been actively trying to find a partner, but finding great difficulty. So many dating agencies have been popping up. So what’s going on?
One clue we have is this :
2x more university females 35-39yrs are single, compared to their below-secondary school counterparts. In contrast, 1.5x more below-secondary school males 35-39yrs are single. (The difference in magnitude, I believe, is due to Vietnamese & Chinese matchmaking agencies available for the men). That it is socially more acceptable for women to marry up, is not a new observation. What’s worth pondering about, is the effect that the GINI has on this phenomenon.
In Singapore, social class is not just about your education level, though that is a very close proxy indicator because of our education and job hiring practices. Income and assets, I speculate, is arguably, an equally important factor in determining your social class. A college dropout who works in the support office is viewed very differently from the college dropout who starts up a billion-dollar company. When the income between the different social strata of society gets wider – as implied by a rising GINI, the number of people who earn +/- 10% of your income tend to be smaller. And we all know dating is a numbers game.
Before we start slamming Singaporeans for being class conscious and materialistic, I think it’s worth pausing for a moment and asking ourselves (& friends) why it matters at all. On a very practical level, Singapore’s high standard of living means that the higher your family’s (ie both spouses’) income, the more comfortable (note: I didn’t say luxurious) your family’s life will be. It means you are more likely to afford tuition for your children (and we all know that your ability to provide private tuition for your kids is what’s going to determine their future). With childcare prices hitting over $1000, and milk powder more expensive than wine, any university grad’s ex-classmate will be a lot more attractive than a bus driver. It really doesn’t matter whether you are looking for a wife or husband — the fact is, if your income is $5000 (rough estimate of a degree holder’s income after a few years, based on the tables here http://www.gemini.com.hk/assets/doc/survey_singapore.pdf ), and you marry your office cleaner rather than your office accountant, your HDB mortgage period is going to double. It may mean you need to work till 70yrs instead of 60yrs, just to pay off your mortgage.
Now assuming you aren’t too concerned about staying in a decent sized flat — you’re fine with a shoebox, the social pressures are immense too, for both wife-hunters and husband-hunters. When a fast-rising young man chooses a retail-sales girl over a fellow fast-rising banker, the poor girl is often stereotyped as a gold-digger. I’m sure we’ve all heard stories where daughter-in-laws are treated differently because of their education or income.
In a low-GINI country where income differences aren’t as stark, where your spouse’s income isn’t going to impact on the quality of your parent’s medical care, there would be more people willing to let love conquer social class differences. With the income criteria more easily met by anyone, it’s easier to find someone because the number of available partners increases tremendously. A bigger pool means you’ve more chances of finding someone you’ve got great chemistry with, someone with the same hobbies are you, someone who finds your bad habits cute. And that may mean more people joining the band-wagon of smug marrieds with their 2.08 kids.
Contributor: Tommy Koh’s article (https://sghardtruth.wordpress.com/2012/05/19/what-singapore-can-learn-from-europe-by-tommy-koh/) provided inspiration for my idea that GINI affects TFR, simply because he had put the income differences across the different countries and the TFR together in that same article. Something clicked. I’ve not really come across this idea yet — probably because of my lack of reading than anything else — so I’ll love to hear comments/other related articles. I don’t think GINI is the only factor impacting TFR, I think it’s simply one of the major factors. Certainly the other factors that Tommy Koh has pointed out (which has been often brought up by others too), are very valid and I’m in perfect agreement.