Reforming Hong Kong: Youth policy

April 27, 2022 09:54
Photo: MWYO

I would never bet against Hong Kong.

More precisely, I would never bet against any city that possesses as dynamic, well-groomed, international, and versatile a workforce as Hong Kong’s. And the bulwark of this – its productivity, its energy, and its dynamism – constitutes Hong Kong’s youth. Without our youth, there could be no future, quite literally. There may be a meandering path weaving the in-between straddling irrelevance and irreverence, yet in the absence of a spontaneous, organic, and flourishing youth, Hong Kong would have no future.

This is why regaining the hearts and minds of our future generations, empowering and equipping them with opportunities, recognising and hearing out their pleas, treating them as human beings and folks with individual ambitions and aspirations… are of the utmost importance. I want to talk about reforming Hong Kong today – and how we can, collectively, make this city a better place for teenagers and children, growing up to lead and spearhead our city’s future trajectory.

Now, here’s a shout-out to a report put together by an excellent think-tank that has industriously generated some rather top-notch, conscientious, and accurate research over recent years: the MWYO recently published a report outlining its findings concerning the malaise facing – and solutions in advancing the interests of – youth in the city. The report offered a comprehensive range of recommendations and prescriptions, ranging from measures aimed at improving socioeconomic mobility and communal integration, to programmes that empower young, aspiring entrepreneurs and workers heading into the job market.

This piece builds off the report – and incorporates some of my personal insights and reflections on the matter. When asked to comment on the most salient priority for most Hong Kong youths, I’d wager that ‘land and housing’ probably does come the closest, but remains even then insufficient as an explanation for the troubles befalling those in the 20-40yo bracket. The root causes of land and housing shortages have been explored to death elsewhere – but the primary reason for which when it comes to the youth, getting a property of their own is in fact an issue, stems from the vast residential-workplace disjunction that characterises the routine of many a youth. Most lower- to mid-tier jobs are clustered in Kowloon and the North of Hong Kong Island, whilst many amongst lower- and middle-class families, as well as youth from more well-to-do backgrounds, do not – by default – live near their workplaces. To find a ownable property that is both adjacent to their workplace and affordable, is a nigh-impossible task: hence the surge in cage homes and subdivided flats, which have come to comprise the default mode of residence for many of our city’s young labourers. This is not healthy – not only in the physical-biomedical sense, but also on a psychological level. Throw in the exorbitant mortgages to which our youth are shackled upon committing to a more permanent residential property, and it’s not that difficult, surely, to see why there exists much disgruntlement towards the government and society at large, from our up-and-coming next generations.

Yet beyond housing fixes – which I’m sure many experts will have, or shall duly address – there remains a more perennial problem, one that hampers both our economic competitiveness writ large, as well as the capacity of working-class youth to access upward mobility. Hong Kong’s industrial policy is non-existent; we have an over-concentration of resources and dividends in a few select sectors, with ‘non-lucrative’ sectors ranging from education to social work, media and culture to the arts, woefully underfunded and ill-tapped-into with respect to their potential and possible support from abroad. It is imperative that we reimagine our economy in a way that is more youth-friendly and -oriented. Give them space and room to grow, to lead, to pioneer and explore their own initiatives. Engage youth entrepreneurs on one-on-one and exclusive opportunities to speak with mentors, who can guide them in making their forays into the unknown and risqué. For all of the talk of Hong Kong’s being a financial hub and center for innovation, there remains a dire lack of what I term ‘safety net’ supports for fledgling start-up founders, innovators; the regulatory system that ostensibly protects the intellectual property rights and fruits of labour of individual thinkers, is both anachronistic and in need of an overhaul. It’s OK that our economy does not place at its core our youth – after all, there are other stakeholders to take care of. Yet it’s not OK that when it comes to future-oriented sectors, our youth have no say, no representation, and no safeguards that preserve their core interests, so as to facilitate them in undertaking calculated and reasonable risks, in trying out ‘new paths’ with intrepidity and sufficient wherewithal.

We don’t set up our youth such that they’re ready to succeed – we’re fixated instead with ensuring that they would never fail. And in so doing, through our obstinate, unyielding, and ultimately dilapidated education system, we consign our next generations to stark choices from a young age – choose a subject, choose a field, choose a battle, choose a job, choose it all. More precisely, parents end up making half of these choices, or more, without their children’s consent. And that’s the tragedy of the credentialist treadmill typifying our society today.

If we want to reform Hong Kong, let’s start by making the city a better place for those who shall come to define and shape its future – and these are not those in political and economic positions of privilege; not those who wield disproportionate discursive or ideological influence over the city. It’s our youth – who deserve better; who could be better: if only we’d let them.

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Assistant Professor, HKU