Wait Long Long to Get Married – No Good Lah


If we’re not careful, one day our weddings will look like this. :O

Singaporeans are marrying later and later in life. In 1990, the median age at first marriage was 28 years for men, and 25.3 years for women. Thirty years later, in 2022, the figures had increased to 30.7 and 29.3 for men and women respectively.

Yet, most Singaporean singles still desire to marry, as found by a 2021 Marriage and Parenthood Survey. A majority (80%) of young single respondents (aged 21-35) indicated that they intend to marry.

Statistics from an Institute of Policy Studies survey published in 2024 confirm these attitudes. Among those aged 21-35, around 4 in 5 of those in a relationship foresee themselves getting married or having children in the future.

Even among single youth, more than half aspire to marriage and parenthood despite almost 7 in 10 saying that it is not necessary to get married or have children in a marriage.

We can breathe a sigh of relief knowing that most Singaporeans still value marriage. But is our comfort misplaced? After all, we are marrying later and later, and despite the success of early government campaigns, that may have been too much of a good thing.

Teen Marriages: A challenge in the 1960s and 1970s

For some, it was a lifetime ago when Singapore struggled with the opposite problem of people marrying too early, in their teens. The 1960s saw teen marriages making up 28.1% of marriages in Singapore, then dipping to 16.2% in the 1970s.

The government grew concerned about teen marriages due to their heightened challenges, stemming from the couples’ early life stage and relative immaturity compared to older pairs. These early unions had repercussions beyond the individual families, affecting broader societal aspects such as child care, education, and employment opportunities.

As part of the Government’s family planning campaign which began in the 1960s, the now-defunct Singapore Family Planning and Population Board ran posters with slogans against teenage marriage, such as: “Teenage marriage means rushing into problems: a happy marriage is worth waiting for.”

A 1978 poster campaigning against teenage marriage (Source: Archives Online)

Now largely a thing of the past, only 0.9% of marriages In 2022, involved at least one spouse under the age of 21 years. And while the proportion was slightly higher among Muslim marriages, the figure was also a low percentage of 2.8% of Muslim marriages.

Why are Singaporeans Marrying Later?

Nowadays, most Singaporeans typically get married in their late 20s or early 30s. Why is this so?

1. Marriage and Parenthood Seen As Less “Necessary” Life Goals

Perhaps one of the most significant shifts in social attitudes is the attitude towards marriage and parenthood as “necessary” life goals.

For many in earlier generations, marriage was seen as an important (if not essential) step in one’s progress towards adulthood. The typical life narrative would go along these lines: study, graduate, get a job, get married and have children, in that order.

Getting married and having children would be seen as part of living a fulfilled and meaningful life.

Today we scoff at the unwelcome probing of elders as to our marital plans.

Such attitudes can be seen from the latest Institute of Policy Studies survey, where older age groups are less likely to agree that it is not necessary to get married or have children in a marriage, as compared to those aged 21-35.

Among those aged 50-64, only around half say that “it is not necessary to get married” (50%) or “it is not necessary to have children in a marriage” (49%). By contrast, around 7 in 10 respondents aged 21-35 agreed with those statements.

Source: Findings from SP2024 Pre-Conference Poll

2. Work-Life Balance

Another important factor is that of work-life balance. As a fast, developed and globally-connected society, Singapore has one of the most intense work cultures in the world. A recent study by Instant Offices ranked Singapore as “the most overworked country”, where employees work the longest hours each week, and around 7 in 10 are unhappy.

Despite our shared pain, the 2021 Marriage and Parenthood Survey found that 75% of single respondents said that career and family are “equally important”, suggesting that most Singaporeans are unlikely to give up their career (or career opportunities) for the sake of family.

With work and career ranking as high personal priorities in life, and work being as intense as it is in Singapore, it is no surprise that many people find little time to pursue dating, marriage and having children.

3. Changing Social Attitudes Towards Premarital Sex

At the same time, there are changing social attitudes towards sexual activity outside marriage.

An Institute of Policy Studies survey found that, in 2018, 24.4% of Singapore residents aged 18 to 25 years said that pre-marital sex was “not wrong at all”. The figure was 21.8% for those aged 26 to 35 years. On the other hand, those who said that pre-marital sex was “always wrong” were only 17.9% for those aged 18 to 25 years and 20.1% for those aged 26 to 35 years, respectively.

This reflects a reframing in the social understanding of sex’s role in society away from being ordered to childbearing to primarily being about pleasure. As a result of the disconnection of sex from Children, there is less societal pressure or incentive to get married compared to before.

Are Later Marriages a Good Thing?

Granted, a couple who marries in their teens would generally face challenges in terms of their education and career. So, on one hand, delaying marriage may mean that the couple has spent longer in the workforce and would thus be relatively more secure in their finances and other resources. This may translate to a better ability to afford various expenses.

It could also mean that the couple has relatively more life experience and maturity to handle the more challenging aspects of marriage and parenting.

However, while few studies have been done on what exactly makes later marriages better, some research overseas does point towards a “sweet spot” of 25 to 32 years of age, where divorce within the first five years of marriage is lowest.

Victims of Our Own Success… and Bioclocks

On the other hand, later marriages, once championed by the Government, are one of the reasons why Singapore has a declining total fertility rate (TFR), which hit a record low of 1.04 in 2022 (less than half of the replacement rate of 2.1).

According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, a woman’s peak reproductive years are between the late teens and late 20s. By age 30, fertility starts to decline.

Biologically speaking, a couple who marries in their 30s would already be past their peak fertility, and have fewer fertile years between themselves to have children.

Part of the problem seems to lie in the fact that people do not fully understand the decline in fertility with age. According to a survey of 1,000 women in Singapore aged 18 to 50 by Virtus Fertility Centre Singapore, nearly 45% of women overestimated the chance of a couple in their mid-thirties getting pregnant naturally, even though most women know that fertility is best before the age of 30.

It would thus help if men and women, be they single or married, receive accurate information and advice about fertility.

With Singapore’s struggles with its TFR and the demographic crisis before us, encouraging marriage and parenthood is a national priority.

Getting Serious About Restoring Marriage in Singapore

It is imperative that Singapore studies the factors – including age – that contribute to successful marriages, and to normalise the markers of such success in society.

Objective standards such as length of marriage and number of kids are significant, but so are subjective questions on the quality of the marriage. Moreover, with shifting perceptions of marriage – what are some perceptions that contribute to the longevity and quality of the marriage, and conversely, what are those that work against it?

From a pragmatic and policy standpoint, it would also seem that one solution would be to ensure that couples are in a sufficiently stable position – such as in terms of housing, finances and job security – by the time they reach their mid to late 20s, so that those who wish to marry and have children feel secure enough to do so.

Policy aside, ultimately, this requires society to strengthen its values that support marriage and family, including challenging the negative trends in society that diminish marriage and parenthood.

These include over-idealising marriage, a lack of pre-marital support or counselling, prioritising economic activity over all other aspects of life, seeing children exclusively as a personal choice cost or even as a commodity instead of a joy and a social responsibility, narrow definitions of success, and casual attitudes towards sex, which devalue not only sex, but also the value of men, women and especially children.

A fulfilling and enduring commitment to marriage and family calls for a collective embrace of a comprehensive perspective on marriage, where love is intertwined with dedication, where marriage embodies a mutual exchange of rights and responsibilities, where sexuality is linked with procreation, and where the marital bond offers a nurturing environment for children to flourish.

This and only this approach has been proven over time to not only enhance personal contentment but also secure the broader society.

Darius Lee
Darius Lee
Darius Lee is the executive director of Cultivate SG, a non-profit organisation dedicated to “growing the good, one conversation at a time”. He is also a trained lawyer and locum solicitor.

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