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Tuesday, December 08, 2020, 01:40
SAR must work harder to reconcile its intergenerational conflicts
By Stuart Gietel Basten
Tuesday, December 08, 2020, 01:40 By Stuart Gietel Basten

In her new Policy Address, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor paid a great deal of attention to both the public health measures to further control the COVID-19 pandemic and the support package to shore up the hard-hit economy and improve livelihoods. She also elaborated on plans to restore the special administrative region’s constitutional order and the political system from chaos. All those proposed new measures, totaling around 200, have rightly received much public attention.

Alongside these major issues which have rocked Hong Kong in the past year or so, the Policy Address has also brought up familiar themes such as Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay integration and land creation through reclamation, particularly the Lantau Tomorrow Vision.

These are all big political issues — and all very now.

However, it would be a grave error for the SAR government to concentrate on these “headline” issues at the expense of continuing to engage with some of the more underlying, perhaps more hidden or structural challenges we have in Hong Kong. These are very familiar to China Daily readers and far too myriad to list here.

My own research is in the field of population ageing. There are clearly many things which Hong Kong needs to do to alleviate the circumstances of older persons in Hong Kong today. It shames us that we still have such high rates of elder poverty. Our health and social care systems, and facilities for dealing with long-term chronic diseases, are also overstretched. 

The real radical changes required, though, will be expensive. We need to have a serious conversation about big issues surrounding adequate financial protection and significant investment in services for older persons. The current budgetary constraints present the first major barrier. The second, however, is less tangible — more a “feeling in the air”. In common with many other places in the world, there has always been a tension between the generations in Hong Kong. The old think the young have never had it so good while the young struggle to maintain the same standard of living as their parents. The political and social fragmentation of the past year or so, coupled with the economic consequences of the pandemic, seems to have pushed these intergenerational relations to the breaking point.

We can either age badly, unequally and with intergenerational resentment. Or we can age sustainably, inclusively and in solidarity. The chief executive can do her part to help us take the latter route; but ultimately, we must choose our own path too

Ironically, tackling the challenges of ageing in Hong Kong requires a special effort to allow the younger population the opportunities to maximize their potential. Merely encouraging people to move to Guangdong province to take up work doesn’t fundamentally solve the problem of stagnant upward social mobility. We have to think forensically about why we have a crisis in the transition from education to employment here in Hong Kong. What are the things we can change — and how quickly can we do it? How can we ensure that not only do our younger population feel valued and heard and that their potential is maximized, but that they are also productive drivers in our economy? Our education sector can play a critical role in retooling our younger people for the challenges ahead. But more immediate and proactive steps can be taken such as the further development of apprenticeships and vocational training, as well as the opening up and professionalization of certain key areas of growth such as care.

But we also need a much more explicit means of tackling the intergenerational conflicts in our society. The only way this can come about is dialogue, and interaction. By walking in the shoes of others for a moment, we can start to understand different views and, perhaps, work collectively, and with compromise, to deliver a better society for all. A society that recognizes and reconciles competing values, demands, expectations, and focuses on what unites us rather than what divides us. However, this is not something which we can expect the government — let alone the chief executive — to do for us. It is a responsibility for us as individuals, and as a community to bear.

Benjamin Franklin once said that “in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes”. In these days of offshore banking and creative accountancy we can probably say that this is only half-true. We can, however, be certain of one thing. We age. Societies age. Hong Kong is ageing — and fast. We are at a crossroads at this moment in Hong Kong. We can either age badly, unequally and with intergenerational resentment. Or we can age sustainably, inclusively and in solidarity. The chief executive can do her part to help us take the latter route; but ultimately, we must choose our own path too.

The author is professor of social science and public policy, and director of the Center for Aging Science at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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