At Singapore Polytechnic's Experience 2016, a Special Innovation Project by Singapore Polytechnic, FFL Council Member, Anita Fam shares as the Keynote Speaker about the social and demographic trends that are changing the face of the family in Singapore and the need to take action in order to meet and overcome these challenges. 

By Anita Fam

Singaporean families are changing and they are changing much faster than we might have imagined. The combined drivers of shrinking family sizes, an aging population and other social and demographic factors means that we need to prepare ourselves for a shift in how we think about supporting the family unit both in terms of resources as well as focus. 

How Are Our Families Changing?

Families Are Getting Smaller

There are now fewer people in an average Singapore household. Between 2013 and 2014, the average household size fell from 3.47 to 3.43 and this trend is likely to continue in the future. Not only are our families getting smaller, but what comprises of a typical family in Singapore is also changing.

In the past, a typical household unit would have seen 2 parents and several children. In 2014, for the first time, the percentage of families with this profile fell below 50%. This means that the traditional nuclear family is now in the minority. Instead, the majority of households in Singapore are now made up of married couples without children, married couples living apart from their children and one-person households. The number of married couples without children or living apart from their children has increased from 3% to 14% between 2000 and 2014. The number of single person household has in the same period of time crossed over the 10% mark and is now at 11.2%. In addition to these numbers, the number of divorces is slowly increasing. Again, this has consequences for single person households and single parent households. Taken together, all these numbers are large and significant.

Clearly, we now live in times where the definition of what comprises of a household unit and what that means about how families live together, share their lives, and depend on each other is changing. 

Families are Getting Older

You’ve probably heard this said many times over the past few years, but Singapore’s population is ageing. With one of the world’s highest levels of life expectancy, Singaporeans born in 2000 can now look forward to living until 82 years of age. If you had been born in 1970, your life expectancy would have been just 66 years of age.

What this means to the family unit however is, that families are getting older. Not only are our households getting smaller because we have fewer children, but the average age of our families is being pushed up as we live longer. In the past, family portraits would have featured a few elderly members of the family surrounded by many young adults and children. Family portraits of the future will probably start to show the opposite - a few children surrounded by many senior and elderly family members.  

Families Will See Their Resources Stretched

Older families also mean that each family will have fewer resources. With fewer young people in the family, there will in future be fewer working adults in each family to support ever increasing numbers of retired and elderly family members. 

A look at some statistics will make this point easier to understand. In 1970, there were 13.5 working citizens supporting every elderly citizen. That means that the support of each elderly citizen could be shared across almost 14 working adults. Today, that ratio has fallen to 4.8 working citizens to each elderly citizen. By 2030, we can expect the ratio to have fallen even lower so that there will only be 2 working adults to support each elderly citizen. 

If you think about it, that means that the resources that each working adult needs to set aside to support our elderly population will need to be 7 times more than what they would have needed in 1970; and we are not even factoring in the impact of rising healthcare, housing and other costs which have occurred in our society.

What Can We Do?

On the surface, it seems that these changes are overwhelming. However, there are many things which we can as a society start to do in order to meet and overcome these challenges.

Acknowledge the Importance of the Extended Family

Whilst the nuclear family unit might be getting smaller, the extended family unit is still an important part of our society. Singapore is lucky because we are a nation which recognises the role and importance of the extended family. So, families don’t need to comprise of just parents and children. They are made up of maternal and paternal grandparents, in-laws, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, nephews and nieces.

So the very first step to addressing our future challenges is to recognise and acknowledge the importance of our extended families. Think about how we can create greater bonds within the extended family, be prepared to help beyond your immediate family units. By working across the extended family unit today, you prepare future generations to accept and adopt this model of support, care and love. 

Prepare for Marriage

Getting married, starting a family, these are all important life changing events. In families of the future, the responsibility that each parent and spouse will need to take on will increase. Not only in terms of caring for your own children, but becoming jointly responsible for the care of your parents and your in-laws. 

The better prepared you can be for marriage, the higher your chances of being able to build and grow a strong and lasting family unit yourself. So, take the time to go through a marriage preparation course before you get married. The stronger your relationship and the better prepared you are, the happier your marriage will be. 

Make Time

It is true, the demands of work and the high cost of living and the expectations which most young couples have today mean that many of us spend incredible amounts of time and energy building our careers. 

But this shouldn’t come at the cost of family time. Singaporeans recognise this too. FFL’s family time polled revealed that only 55% of us are satisfied with the amount of quality time we spend with our families. 

Families need to become more intentional about setting aside “family time” to bond with each other. We need to make this as much a priority as possible.

Use Technology

Whilst technology has often been cited as a barrier to family time and communication, like most tools, it can be used to create more platforms for us to connect with our families too. Using WhatsApp family groups and other types of social media within a family group can enable us to stay in touch with each other despite our hectic lifestyles.

What makes a Strong Family?