Why should there be any place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation?
Because, boys and girls, that’s where babies are made and future taxpayers are created – if only more citizens saw procreation as their patriotic duty.
There are limited strategies for replenishing an aging population, and sex remains one of the best. Particularly in low-birthrate societies that would rather address the awkward intimacies of reproduction than welcome waves of immigrants.
But persuading people to hook up and have babies – and then, on the basis of that sobering experience, to have more babies – has turned out to be one of the great political challenges of the modern world.
Consider Singapore, which is obsessed by the failure of its young people to be fruitful and multiply. Among 30– to 34-year-olds, 44 per cent of men and 31 per cent of women are single – an enviable statistic for a Manhattan bar, perhaps, but “a grave problem” for a birthrate-conscious nation, according to former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew.
The collective awareness of the country’s fertility gap was demonstrated vividly this week with a saucy ad campaign that rebranded Singapore’s National Day as “National Night.” In a three-minute rap video, Mentos mints called on citizens – at least those “in stable and committed long-term relationships” – to use the holiday as an opportunity to produce progeny.
“Let’s not watch fireworks, let’s make ‘em instead,” urged a male singer. “It’s National Night and I want a baby, boo,/ I know you want it, so does the SDU.”
That would be the Social Development Unit, an agency that helps the country’s overworked young people pair off and procreate. Indeed, the government has adopted an intrusiveness that would confound hands-off hedonists such as Pierre Trudeau, who famously withdrew the state’s prying gaze from our bedrooms.
By contrast, Singapore singles have access to speed-dating, Latin dance classes, online chat groups and grooming workshops through government programs. Bureaucrats even serve as “dating advisers.”
But while the Mentos video went viral, its underlying message about baby-making drew mixed reactions from the target market.
“It shouldn’t be treated like hard-selling a product,” said 27-year-old Kenny Goh, an unmarried Singapore lawyer. “Instead we should foster a lifestyle that naturally encourages family values.”
Easier said than done. Whether it’s Mentos elevating sex to a civic duty or the backwoods Greek mayor of Zacharo importing prospective brides for local lonelyhearts, setting the stage for the hook-up is much simpler than creating a world where raising a child is neither financially punitive nor personally compromising.
To achieve the high fertility rate of a pace-setter such as Norway, a modern industralized country would have to welcome high taxes, make female equality a social reality, lose all doubts about state-paid child care, extend parental leave to fathers and then recognize the resulting payoff in tax revenues and female labour-market participation.
Half-measures won’t cut it. Take Hong Kong, a city that once urged its citizens to limit their family size. Now, there’s deep anxiety about their low fertility rate – 1.10 births per woman, well short of the replacement rate of 2.1. But the tax breaks for having children barely register in a city with exorbitant costs for housing, education and child care – prospective parents, naturally enough, want a better life for yet-to-be-conceived children than subsistence-level incentives can provide.
Hong Kong is therefore considering a rather no-frills effort to increase its numbers: tapping mothers in mainland China to give birth in city hospitals, and later trying to recruit their children to “rejoin” Hong Kong as official residents.
The fertility rate in nearby Taiwan is even lower than Hong Kong’s, and it doesn’t have the option of a population grab from China. Instead, one legislator has proposed “matchmaking holidays” that will free up overworked civil servants to socialize more productively.
Taiwan also dangles the usual tax-break carrots, without success, leaving some public moralizers to rail against a culture of individuality that lacks respect for traditional values – demonstrating how a bid to boost procreation can also play into a conservative agenda and politicize baby-making. That family-first line plays equally well in the United States, where large broods are associated with the evangelical religious right. In fact, U.S. population growth depends much more on the imported values of poor Hispanic immigrants.
But if state-endorsed baby-making is simply reduced to patriotic duty, the easiest solution is to be found in Iran: President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has demanded that girls as young as 16 marry and procreate.
Historically, family, community pressure and religious doctrine all coerced the laggardly into reproduction. And there was a basic economic argument to back up their efforts: the more children you had, the better off you would likely be, since your kids were your workforce.
These days, though, at least in developed countries, procreation has lost its primacy. Women have considerable reproductive and economic leeway. Crafting a collective solution to the long-term crisis of an aging population is hardly a priority when you first have to find a decent job, pay off a house and look for the perfect mate.
Even the prospect of minty-fresh breath may not be enough to concentrate all that divided attention on baby-making.
“I would love to do something fun,” said 25-year-old Singapore public-relations executive Joyce Peh, as she pondered the enticing holiday opportunities offered by National Night. “But I think I’ll just end up worrying about work piling up over the break.”
Make babies? Maybe
Make love, not war. Well, sure, but the key thing is: make that love count. That’s the message in Singapore, where the government has tried everything from state-sponsored speed dating to Latin dancing in a bid to address a falling birth rate. It’s also the basis for a cheeky ad campaign Mentos mints launched this week urging citizens to turn the country’s national birth day into a national night of baby-making. Calvin Yang talked to Singaporeans about what they made of the ad, and their plans for “national night.”
Married, no kids
On her holidays, this 40-year-old is planning on doing what she’s done the last few years – staying at home. Despite her childless status, she says: “Having a family is not a challenge in Singapore if one makes the effort and does not complain.”
Tay Wee Thiang
The 45-year-old product developer is impressed with the attention-getting tone of the Mentos ad campaign: “In a strict country like Singapore, the video successfully broke through the wall that’s been built by censorship.” Still, he says, the cost of having a baby makes procreation a challenge.
Holly Jean Aroozoo
Engaged, no kids
“I don’t think anyone is going to come away from this feeling that they should make a baby tonight,” says the 31-year-old blogger. “For me, I will have a baby because I want to, regardless of when or how many my nation suggests.”
It wasn’t until nearly 9 p.m. that this 25-year-old engineer managed to leave his office. “Everyone is working hard today so that they can enjoy National Day tomorrow,” he said. And that’s the problem: Singaporeans work too hard and play too little. “A campaign like National Night shows how bad our productivity is when we conveniently delay baby-making to days when we are not working.”