What our youth need today

November 30, 2023 08:48
Photo: RTHK

The headlines say it all.

The suicide rate amongst 15-24 year olds in Hong Kong rose to a record high of 12.2 deaths per 100,000 people, as compared with just over a half of this number 8 years ago.

22 teenage suicide attempts or deaths had been recorded between August and October. 20 were committed after the commencement of the new school year.

There are many ways to parse the data. Some would attribute the trends to the ‘adjustment difficulties’ involved – the ‘teething problems’, so to speak – as schools transition away from online/hybrid teaching to in-person teaching. Others would jump to the conclusion that there has been a gross dereliction of duty by the ‘first line’ of defence, e.g. school administrators and teachers, whilst paying little to no heed to the fact that with the exodus in teachers and families, many schools are experiencing a sizable manpower crunch, even whilst other schools are overflowing with a surplus of teaching labour.

And then there’s the cliched kneejerk reaction, that suggests that the youth today are feeling and bearing the brunt of socioeconomic inequalities and an ossified economy that is obstinately resistant towards calls and pushes for diversification. After all, if a problem is material, is economic, then presumably it has solutions – such is the motivation for bureaucrats and politicians the world-over to frame problems away: if money can buy peace, then it’s no issue.

Yet inequality is itself a complex and multi-faceted phenomenon. The socioeconomic dimension of it certainly matters – but even within it there exists a multitude of competing demands that urgently require prioritisation and delivery: housing shortages cannot be collapsed or reduced into the underemployment question. Workers deserve and crave not just the ability to live in a decently sized flat, but also the capacity to pursue careers that can generate a genuine sense of satisfaction and social mobility.

Our youth are anxious not only about the earnings and incomes they are due to make, but also whether the property they purchase would appreciate and ‘rise in value’ in the future – or tank as a result of the general confidence malaise afflicting Hong Kong’s property markets. Innovators and entrepreneurs aren’t doing what they’re doing for the cash alone – they yearn for a sense of achievement and real impact as they contribute towards the frontiers of business and/or the sciences. To reduce socioeconomic inequality into a unidimensional issue, and then to attribute the woes – primarily medical (depression) or otherwise (a general state of lethargy that is nevertheless not depression) – to this unidimensional caricature of ‘wealth’ and ‘wealth distribution’, quite simply will not cut it.

Beyond socioeconomic inequalities, however, I’d submit that there exists an alternative, plausibly more pernicious and no less urgent category of inequalities that permeate Hong Kong today. And that is, the inequality in agency. More precisely – an inequality in both a) the objective capacity to make a meaningful difference to decisions undertaken by vested power structures, and b) the subjective perception that one does in fact possess this capacity. Both objective and subjective components matter – a drowning child that is rescued from the brink of choking under water certainly is safe physically, yet unless his post-traumatic disorder is redressed in full, he will have to bear with the unbearable agony of living through the sentiments of having his nostrils and throat clogged up with water. The subjective sensation and sentiment matters just as much as the objective state of well-being – especially when it comes to the hearts and minds of the public.

Both the subjective and objective absence of agency poses a fundamental problem. Such absence, for once, means that our youth, in lieu of seeing themselves as invested into the future of this very community, see themselves as ‘stake-less’: no stake, no gain, and hence no pain as they see this city struggle through a sluggish and precarious economic reopening and revival. Such absence also instils the erroneous impression in our youth, that their actions, their speech, and their thoughts do not and will not matter.

Consider all the youth out there who lack political, economic, and social connections to have their voices heard: the Bangladeshi migrant who is struggling to learn Cantonese yet remains adamant in so doing; the mainland Chinese compatriot who has moved here with their family and has strained to find a job in an increasingly monolithic and linear economy, or, quite simply, the girl in the public housing estate in Kwun Tong trying her best to break through as a professional writer and author. In their minds – and dare I say they could be misinformed, with exaggerated views, but this view is by no means groundless -- this city is hence “no place for young men (folks)” (cf. “No Country for Old Men”).

To restore hope into the hands of our youth, is easier said than done. Political institutions – including the government, mainstream political parties, and community associations – must seek to actively reach out to and absorb the voices of the youth, ideally bringing on board those who may even be sceptical or mildly cynical towards the status quo system. Mental health support and therapy must and ought to feature more than the professional practitioners funded and managed largely by the public health system – we need all hands on deck in fostering a more friendly and conducive environment for open-minded dialogue and candid sharing: we must normalise ‘Not being OK’, and de-stigmatise it in so doing, without caving on the fundamental promises and claims that all youth deserve and are due: the right to be heard, to be accepted, to not be alienated, and, above all, to be mentally well. Our youth are agents, not patients. Nor are they necessarily ‘rascals’. Indeed, most are sound, salubrious, and deeply passionate folks who care for our community. Till we give them the respect they are due, there can be no real progress on the front of youth engagement and inclusion.

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Assistant Professor, HKU