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Can Technology Bridge the Intergenerational Gap?

Over recent decades, many Asian countries have experienced marked societal changes across the board[1]. Longer life spans, lower birth rates, industrialisation and urbanisation have all contributed to a shift in cultural norms[1].

Singapore is no stranger to these changes. In just 6 decades, Singapore catapulted itself from colonial backwater into Asia’s most developed, industrial high-tech society[2] - even overtaking other Asian giants such as Hong Kong and South Korea. 

It is also therefore, no surprise that such rapid transformation has impacted Singapore’s society in noticeable ways, especially when seen from an intergenerational lens. 

There are obvious gaps in education, income and consumption[1], familial structures have changed, and consequently, the traditional Asian ways of showing intergenerational support and unity[3] - which have been integral to the building blocks of Singaporean society - now seem to have disintegrated.

The breakdown of intergenerational living arrangements

In the past, it was common for three generations to live together and provide assistance to each other, facilitating close relationships between grandparents and grandchildren[3]. But Singapore’s high levels of economic development have afforded individuals more independence, and in more ways:

  • Families now have more means for childcare and elderly care, meaning that they no longer need to be as highly co-dependent on each other for help as they used to be.

    Statistics prove this point. Older persons who were married but not co-residing with children had increased by about 11% between the years 2007-2017, older persons living alone had increased by almost 6%, while those living in three-generational arrangements had decreased by about 13%[2].

    On top of that, there is also a growing trend where more and more young, single Singaporeans are setting up homes away from their parents[4]. This trend accelerated in recent years, seemingly to have been exacerbated further by the COVID-19 pandemic, where homes no longer exist only as living spaces, but need to function as conducive working spaces too[4].

    All these factors, combined with an increasing shift from traditional family values, add to more and more Singaporeans opting for separate living arrangements as the more practical choice.

  • The expectations of filial love are shifting across generations. The commonly viewed displays of filial piety by ‘Merdeka Generation’ parents include having their children give monthly allowances to them, live with them until marriage and take care of them when they age[5].

    However, younger generations of parents feel they want to be less reliant on their children for financial support as they age, feeling that the better education and opportunities that were made available to them can afford them more independence[5].

  • Another norm that is changing relates to living options for the elderly. While before, putting the elderly up in a nursing home would be considered irresponsible and disrespectful even, the rise of better assisted living facilities and the prospect of being surrounded by their peers, accessing professional help and enjoying a sense of community, is becoming an option that seems more practical - even desirable - for the elderly[6].

Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat acknowledged these changes in May 2022, at an event commemorating the 20th anniversary of the local charity Focus on the Family Singapore, saying “There are important changes in family structures that Singaporeans must recognise and prepare for”, but he reinforced that “strong families remain the bedrock of society[5].”

He then referred to the fact that COVID-19, while having taken a toll on society, also revealed a renewed appreciation for time spent with family[5]. In fact, COVID-19 showed just how much technology played a part in strengthening familial ties despite a time of social distancing[5].

The rise of intergenerational bonding through technology

While many factors of changing times have contributed to the breakdown of the traditional way of intergenerational living, we have also found ourselves adopting new and modern ways to maintain intergenerational familial ties, without living in the same home.

Based on his ongoing research about the role of technology in the relationship between grandparents and grandchildren in Asia, Dr Kelvin Tan, Head of Programme for Applied Ageing Studies and Senior Lecturer of Gerontology at SUSS, shares that technology can indeed be a strengthening factor in intergenerational relationships, in several ways:

  • As fewer grandparents are living in the same homes as their grandchildren, research has found that technology can maintain their relationships over the distance. Tools such as text messaging, calls, emails and social media have proven to be effective in helping grandparents and grandchildren remain in contact and nurture their relationships[3].

    None proved this more than during the COVID-19 pandemic. When social distancing was a necessity and regular face-to-face interaction was not possible, video calls became the natural substitute[3].

  • Delving further into social media, it was found that sites such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter have become a good way to facilitate a connection between the elderly and their grandchildren in a less intrusive way[3].

    The digital young tend to be uncomfortable with direct communication such as regular phone calls. Social media, however, bridges the differences by removing the burden of a scheduled call, yet still making it easy for grandparents to stay involved in their grandchildren’s lives[3].

  • Apart from facilitating communication between grandparents and grandchildren, a rarely-discussed but no less prominent way that technology can bring grandparents and grandchildren together is multiplayer mobile games[3].

    This allows grandparents and grandchildren to play and spend time together - albeit digitally - fostering stronger relationships in the same way board games and card games used to bring intergenerational families together[3]

  • Traditionally, grandparents represent figures of advice and guidance, but in the case of technology, grandchildren are given the chance to reciprocate this role by assisting their grandparents in adapting to an increasingly digital society, whom they recognise as a vulnerable group due to lower digital literacy[3].

    Moreover, the younger generation is able to express the most prominent expressions of filial piety by upholding a social responsibility to help older adults navigate the digital world, while for grandparents, learning from their grandchildren becomes a way to develop and strengthen intergenerational bonds[3].

Family bonding of the future

Dr Tan concludes that contrary to popular belief, it is not necessarily true that technology creates an intergenerational gap[3]. Provided that the usage of technology is not in place of relationship building, but instead used to further enable relational bonding, technology in fact, cements the interactions and closes physical divides.

This further enables Asian grandparents and grandchildren to continue upholding the values of filial piety and intergenerational reciprocity, even within today’s newer trends of a more fragmented family living structure[3].

[1] RESEARCHGATE.NET Book Review: The Binding Tie: Chinese Intergenerational Relations in Modern Singapore By K. Göransson October 2012

[2] Sreeja Narayanankutty and Premchand Dommaraju (2022) Grandparenting and Intergenerational Solidarity in Singapore. Journal of Population and Social Studies (JPSS)

[3] Tan, Kelvin. (2022, OCT 24-26). Role of technology in the relationship between grandparents and grandchildren in Asia. [Conference presentation abstract]. The 13th World Conference of Gerontechnology, International Society for Gerontechnology, Korea.    

[4] TODAY (SEP 2021) The big read in short: Young, single and living away from parents 

[5] STRAITS TIMES (MAY 2022) Covid-19 brings families closer but there are changes in family structures: DPM Heng

[6] STRAITS TIMES (APR 2021) Filial piety norms: Caught between two worlds


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