Despite Covid travel restrictions, recent memories of social unrest, and even severely unaffordable housing, Hong Kong is still a dream home for most people in the world.
It is one of the safest big cities anywhere. Our world-class infrastructure allows everyone to move around easily, including access to stunning natural environments. The economic prospects presented by the Greater Bay Area are the envy of businesspeople everywhere.
Let us not forget that most big cities in the world contain sprawling informal settlements where citizens lack access to clean piped water, sewerage, secure housing, or even reliable electricity. By 2050, according to some estimates, up to one third of all global urban dwellers will live in a slum, without services. Even the United States is not immune to the blight of urban poverty, as homelessness has expanded significantly during the past year.
Notable exceptions include parts of developed Asia like Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and now Mainland China, in addition to many advanced cities in the Western world.
However, some young people in Hong Kong have adopted the view that life might be better elsewhere. A Chinese University of Hong Kong poll found that 60% of youth surveyed reported the desire to leave Hong Kong. The Hong Kong Federation of Youth Groups found that one-quarter of university-educated under-35's plan to pursue work elsewhere. These are troubling figures, given that the future of any society is dependent on its younger generation.
On one hand, there are very real reasons for this sense of despondency. Decent housing remains unaffordable for many. Sky-high rents colour all aspects of life, from family planning to the simple act of buying lunch. The narrowing of Hong Kong's industrial base has led to constrained employment opportunities, and structural inequality has led to persistently low economic mobility, particularly for the youth.
The confluence of these overlapping socioeconomic factors combined with a culture of long working hours has led to significant mental health issues, now readily acknowledged.
But those that make the difficult decision to relocate away from Hong Kong may find their new life unexpectedly challenging. It was recently reported that of the people who have moved to the United Kingdom on the BNO scheme, almost half were still unemployed as of the end of August. Only 18.5% had found full-time work. Many have settled for jobs well below their qualifications and accepted significantly lower pay levels, frequently in jobs involving manual labour.
Not everyone wants to leave. Not everyone is able to leave. Most young people will remain in Hong Kong. For them, there is a need for greater attention and resources to be focused on fostering a positive outlook, and a "can-do" spirit. The current negativity and pessimism should not be accepted as inevitable.
Equally, the mindsets of young people are unlikely to shift without coordinated and determined intervention. This is particularly the case given the pervasive and complex media landscape and competing narratives, influenced by geopolitics.
There are many forms intervention could take, and thus many opportunities for various sectors in society to make a positive impact. Young professionals across sectors, industries, and backgrounds should be empowered to better appreciate what they can do to make a positive impact on Hong Kong society.
The challenges are well known. Taking ownership of problems, also known as complaining, has become commonplace. What is required now, in our estimation, is to inspire young people to take ownership of solutions, and thereby recognise that individuals and communities can change society for the better, by taking action.
What are some examples of solutions?
The benefits of regular engagement in physical activity are widely understood. Despite our dense living environment, there are opportunities for rethinking the use of under-utilised spaces and creating more community-based sports facilities.
Hong Kong has an ageing population. Shifting demographics will impact society in many ways. It will also trigger new opportunities in health, caregiving, gerontechnology and even retrofitting apartments to be more age-friendly. Serving the elderly and ensuring dignified ageing in place will create new professions in the future. Young people should be encouraged to see these as valuable and attractive career options.
Local food production is another area that can offer real benefits to society, and thus inspire young people to engage constructively. Improved health and nutrition, closer connection to the land and the cycles of nature, and contributing to the urgent need for decarbonisation by consuming local produce – these are just a few of the many reasons why it makes sense. In a very practical sense, young people will benefit from getting their hands dirty and growing the food of the future.
Likewise, there are many areas of society ripe for new ideas, and ripe for action. Some of these will involve new cutting-edge technologies like digital connectivity and smart city applications. Many, however, are not dependent on technology, but instead rely only on bold thinking, and a focus on action.
Young people need to see a path to a brighter future and also to be given the opportunity to help create that future. This is why we believe it is more critical than ever to encourage the next generation to "Stay & Build."
Eric Stryson, Managing Director - Global Services, Global Institute For Tomorrow
Stay & Build is a new platform to encourage and inspire young people to get engaged in creating a better future for Hong Kong. It is part of the Global Institute For Tomorrow (GIFT), an independent pan-Asian think tank founded in Hong Kong.
For more information, please visit : info.global-inst.com/stayandbuild