In the Policy Address 2017, the Commission on Youth (CoY) was asked to put forward proposals for a youth development policy. As the Chairman of the CoY, I ask for the next Chief Executive’s support in formulating a vision for our youth and reaching a unified narrative for all youth-related stakeholders and actions.
During my term as the Chairman of the Commission on Youth (CoY), I have attached great importance to communicating with our young people. Apart from official activities of the CoY, I have got in touch with young people and listened to their views through less formal channels, including small-group meetings and social media. Many of the youth that I have met are students from all ages and backgrounds, but I have also spoken to young politicians and activists, athletes, entrepreneurs, artists and ethnic minorities. To fully understand our youth and the challenges they face, we must understand the ways in which young people interact with the community at large. This is why I have made sure to engage other stakeholders as well, including parents, teachers and principals, social workers, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), and private sector actors that are active or interested in youth development.
2017 is an exciting year for Hong Kong’s youth development, but we have a lot of work to do. The CoY was asked to put forward proposals on the future direction of a youth development policy.
Youth development means different things to different people. To many, it means better education and job opportunities. To others, creating space for civic participation is more important. Every young person is as unique as the other. That is why consultation is key for Hong Kong to formulate a youth development policy that meets the diverse needs of our next generation.
That said, I will use this note to outline what I consider to be the HKSAR Government’s (HKSARG’s) and the next Chief Executive’s priorities in youth development, based on my work and engagements in the past two years. Hong Kong’s youth development policy should address the following areas: (1) education; (2) employment and vocational training; (3) the housing and economic situation; (4) civic participation; (5) national identity; (6) technology and social media; and (7) resilience and mental wellbeing.
Inspire lifelong learning
I have heard many criticisms of Hong Kong’s education system. I have no intention to belittle these concerns, though as I have said before, blaming all education woes on the HKSARG or its officials is simplistic and unfair. It might be more constructive to consider two questions: (i) What is the aim of education? (ii) Is our education system designed and implemented in such a way to achieve this objective?
83% of local secondary students study for the purpose of landing a good job, according to a 2016 survey by Education 2.1. My exchanges with parents and teachers yield the same finding. Yet when students are not studying based on their interests or to fulfill their intellectual curiosity, this has direct implications on their subject choice and passion for learning. Year in and year out, our education system produces batches and batches of students competing for subjects that are more likely to give them a “good job” in industries such as medicine, law, business and finance; nonetheless, many of these students told me that they went through years of training to realise that their real interest lies elsewhere. Is this not a failure on the part of our education system? The introduction of Career and Life Planning (CLP) is a step in the right direction, though it is too early to determine its effectiveness.
Our education system is flawed in many ways. The workload of our students is too heavy. 91% feel pressure in preparing for the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education (HKDSE), and 37% describe the pressure as “severe”. 35% of our students do not have enough time to rest and relax, and 37% do not have time to explore and develop their interests. Our assessment methods are mostly exam-based. The upshot is an educational experience that does not encourage curiosity, creativity, reflection, expression or collaboration, all of which are skills essential in modern society.
We want our youth to have a personalised education that enhances their strengths and creates opportunities for them to explore and pursue their interests starting from an early age. We need a CLP education that is effective in enabling students to make informed choices about their future and facilitating their transition from studying to working. Currently, best practices for conveying CLP education are not known, and this should be changed through better stakeholder communication.
Effective Career and Life Planning methods should be scaled, and parents’ role in students’ life choices need to be better understood.
Many have made suggestions on how to improve our education system, and I do not need to repeat them here. These suggestions bring out the need for a complete review of Hong Kong’s education system, from its syllabus and curriculum to its assessment methods. Language is a key tool for learning, and Hong Kong has always prided itself on its students’ bilingualism. We must ensure that our students do not lose this competitive edge and continually improve our language pedagogy, including Chinese teaching for non-Chinese speaking children.
We want our students to see learning as an enjoyment and not a chore, so that they will be inspired to embark on lifelong learning.
Learning can take place in many contexts. I observed many informal activities outside the classroom and was impressed by their effectiveness in building students’ soft skills, including problem solving, relationships and wellbeing, and financial literacy. International exchange tours, such as the ones supported by the CoY, enable students to gain exposure. There is much to be said for the HKSARG to support life skills programmes and expand the international exchange network for our students.
Employment and Vocational Training
Make young people job-ready
Young people find that, compared to their parents, they have fewer job opportunities and witness smaller pay rises as they climb up the career ladder. Comparing relevant figures in 1991 and 2011, more working youth are in lower-paid associate professional jobs, as opposed to higher-paid managerial and professional jobs. More young people have taken up low-waged, low-skilled service and sales jobs over the past 20 years.
The youth wage growth rate dropped from 45.6% in 1993-1998 to 25.6% in 2008-2013. The starting salary of a fresh university graduate was $13,158 in 1993, but fell to $10,860 in 2013, somewhat eroding the common belief that a university degree guarantees financial return. The problem is exacerbated for youth without a university degree. In 2015, the median monthly earnings of a non-degree holder was HK$16,450, significantly lower than the HK$27,500 of a degree holder.
Our youth enjoy less occupational and earnings mobility than the older generation. The unfortunate truth is there is a mismatch of demand and supply in our labour market. The demand for high-skilled professionals has not caught up with the increased (and still increasing) supply of university and sub-degree graduates. Hong Kong has an excess of sub-degree holders, and this excess was projected to increase even more in 2022.
What Hong Kong needs is a broader, more diversified economic base beyond the real estate, finance and commercial sectors. While we can debate about the appropriate degree of economic intervention to diversify jobs, the HKSARG is at least in a good position to foster communications between employers and tertiary institutions to bridge the demand/supply gap. With increased communications, schools can have more clarity on needs in the labour market, and what employers look for in making hiring decisions. Schools can then be more responsive in providing training to students.
The HKSARG should enhance young people’s job-readiness through creating better opportunities for them to gain work experience in their school years. Hong Kong has many mentorship and internship programmes, yet their quality and impact are rarely evaluated.
We need to move beyond quantitative targets, and ensure that internship programmes deliver their intended outcome.
Youth who want to pursue careers in fields like the arts, sports and entrepreneurship face extra hurdles. Parental pressure and societal norms, as well as financial burden, are but a few obstacles they have to overcome in following an “unconventional” path. These young people in particular need support from the HKSARG, from infrastructure to funding to capacity- and network-building.
Housing and Economic Situation
Support youth to be self-sufficient
Housing comes up as a frequent topic of discussion in my exchanges with youth. Many tell me that buying a property in Hong Kong is almost impossible these days. Yet, for every young person who is distressed by the unaffordability of flats in Hong Kong, there is another individual who tells me that he/she does not put housing at the top of his/her concerns.
To have a clearer understanding of the issue, my team compiled a Hong Kong Youth Development Index (HKYDI) to provide a quantifiable, objective account of Hong Kong youth’s wellbeing in the past 10 years. HKYDI measures the living situation of young people in Hong Kong across six domains, one of them being economic situation. Based on the results, it is true that residential property in Hong Kong has become less affordable in the past decade. The ratio of youth employee earnings to private residential property prices has risen significantly by 112% from 2005 to 2014. However, other aspects of local young people’s economic situation have improved. Youth poverty rate has dropped by 13.1% from 2009 to 2014, and youth employee earnings have increased by 9.4% from 2005 to 2014.
The primary issue lies in our surging property prices. This should not come as a surprise; indeed there has been ample supporting data and public discussions on this subject. The average price for a small residential unit skyrocketed by 188% from 2006 to 2013, while the median monthly household income increased by a mere 30%. The takeaway is that housing is a policy imperative not only in relation to youth, but everyone in Hong Kong, and addressing it requires long-term, comprehensive strategies and coordination from the HKSARG and beyond.
Increasing housing supply is key, and the HKSARG can also take specific measures to support youth in home ownership. For example, the HKSARG can review the eligibility criteria of public housing for youth based on financial needs, and build more youth hostels (beyond the five locations already identified under the Home Affairs Bureau’s Youth Hostel Scheme). Equally important is for all stakeholders (HKSARG, young people and society at large) to put the issue into perspective. Globally, the transition from youth to adulthood has become more complex and drawn out, and many young people delay moving out of the parental home or return after living independently in college. Such is the case in the UK, the US, Australia, and European countries like Sweden and Denmark. This phenomenon suggests that home ownership is not a prerequisite to financial independence.
In many countries, home ownership is not a prerequisite to financial independence.
Many young people around the world are experiencing delayed home ownership (or financial independence, or both), and our youth need not be discouraged or frustrated simply because of this situation. What the HKSARG can do is to understand the factors affecting youth’s financial independence, and measures that other countries have taken to address this issue.
The HKSARG should introduce policies to support our young people in becoming financially self-sufficient.
Engage our youth fully and effectively
I have spoken to many young people who feel that their voices are not heard or that they do not have enough influence over policymaking. These young people are passionate about certain causes or social affairs, and would like to have their views acknowledged by the HKSARG, if not taken into account. On the other end of the spectrum, there is a significant “silent majority” among local youth. The turnout rate of young voters aged 18-25 in Legislative Council elections has fallen by 15.9% from 2004 to 2012. Less than half of our young people voted in the most recent Legislative and District Council elections, with the relevant voting rate being 44.5% and 30.2% respectively. Both represent a segment of our next generation, and both phenomena reflect that our youth are not fully engaged on civic matters. While formal platforms and channels such as the Annual Youth Summit and Youth Exchange Sessions exist, they have not been successful in allowing our youth to feel adequately represented.
The HKSARG can place more emphasis on informal exchanges and social media interactions, as well as on encouraging volunteerism.
We must also not forget that community involvement entails more than political participation; it also involves volunteerism. Through engaging youth in community services, young people not only develop positive virtues like citizenship and a sense of belonging to the community, they also hone skills essential for the job market, such as leadership, teamwork, communication, creativity and problem-solving. The HKSARG should encourage and offer more opportunities for young people to give back to the community.
Facilitate informed decision-making
The HKSARG has had a long history of supporting youth exchange in Mainland China. In 2016/17 alone, the CoY funded more than 300 exchange and internship tours organised by third parties. I personally joined some of these tours to collect students’ feedback. Participants told me that they appreciated authentic exchanges with local people, and free time to explore the destination city and its culture.
This has led me to believe that, on the subject of national identity, the HKSARG’s role is to encourage our youth to learn about Mainland China and provide them with adequate opportunities to do so – no more and no less. One’s cultural identity is an individual choice and it can only be meaningfully formed through personal experience and reflection. Measures like rote-learning the Basic Law and Putonghua recital competitions have had limited effect because they convey only superficial knowledge, but do not engender a genuine understanding of Mainland China or create personal resonance.
We must also not forget the fact that Hong Kong has a unique identity and culture that is quite different from that of Mainland China. Because of “One Country, Two Systems”, Hong Kong remains a capitalist economy and has a common law legal system; we continue to use Cantonese and traditional Chinese characters predominantly in our day-to-day lives; and we have very different media outlets. We cannot blame our young people for not feeling as connected as they should be with Mainland China.
Our tech-savvy youth have access to a wide range of information and media online, representing different views on the issue of national identity as well as towards Mainland China. Some sources contain misinformation or stereotypes, and it would be unfortunate if our youth were to base their views on these sources alone. Herein lies the significance of letting our youth have a first-hand experience of Mainland China and its culture.
The HKSARG should provide youth with opportunities to make an informed decision about their cultural identity, while acknowledging that any shift in perception will come from within.
Over the years, exchange and internship programmes in Mainland China have evolved into diversified and interactive learning experiences. For one, destinations now span the whole of China. For another, the types of programmes range from cultural and historical tours, to legal and architectural internships, to volunteer service camps. Precisely because of the scale of these programmes, their standards and outcomes have not been consistent. As the HKSARG continues to support these schemes, it is imperative to evaluate their quality, especially from our young people’s perspective, to make sure that they truly benefit youth.
Technology and Social Media
Enhance Digital Literacy and Minimise Safety Risks
Policy suggestions in this area tend to focus on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education and job creation in the IT industry. I would like to shift the focus to the profound impact that technology has on our next generation. Technology influences how young people interact with each other, and how they perceive the world and themselves. As social media becomes ubiquitous, its role in the lives of millennials has expanded beyond socialising with peers; it is now a space for them to voice opinions on public affairs and organise community actions (the social context). For many young people, social media and, more broadly, the Internet has become an important information and news source, and a platform for creating and sharing one’s work (the academic context). Risks and opportunities exist in both contexts. We need to teach our youth how to make the most out of technology whilst minimising the harm it entails.
In the social context, social media creates opportunities for young people to express themselves, thereby building self-esteem and establishing their own identity. As alluded to above, the HKSARG needs to better leverage social media as a tool to enhance civic awareness and participation. On the other hand, policies should protect our youth from privacy and safety risks, primarily through prevention and education. Cyberbullying is a real concern in many countries, such as the UK and the US, and yet Hong Kong is lacking in our understanding of the issue.
In the academic context, young people can develop competencies from seeking, evaluating and disseminating information online, and the information fluency they acquire is increasingly critical for success in the modern age. On the flip side, they do face risks of information overload and fortuitous searching.
We must ensure that youth possess the digital literacy to find and process online information and assess their credibility and quality.
The HKSARG should engage stakeholders to better understand Hong Kong youth’s social media use, particularly its potential benefits and how we can leverage it as an educational tool. Where risks exist, it should formulate intervention strategies.
The HKSARG can identify synergies between various entities, including technology companies in the private sector and NGOs to create impactful initiatives against cyberbullying.
Resilience and Mental Wellbeing
Build a generation of resilient youth
The suicide cases among students last year have prompted discussions on the mental health of young people and the formation of a dedicated Committee on Prevention of Student Suicides. The Committee has done ample work to tackle the issue of suicide prevention, but I see these cases as also underscoring a broader principle that Hong Kong has overlooked in youth development – resilience. Resilience is a theme that underlies many youth policies across the world, including the UK, Australia and New Zealand. To borrow the UK’s definition, resilience is the “mental toughness” that helps young people deal with challenge, stress, and pressure. Once we shift the focus from suicide prevention to a proactive, holistic strategy to instil resilience, the question becomes:
How do we equip our youth with the ability to cope with adversity and overcome hurdles in life? This should guide the HKSARG in forming strategies on youth development.
Instilling resilience needs to take place in all contexts. Schools, teachers, parents, social workers, and organisers of youth programmes all play a role. There are two points that we can all remind ourselves of when interacting with our youth. First, we need to provide young people with more opportunities to experience success in different ways. We must move away from elitism and a utilitarian view of extra-curricular activities, and foster a culture of diversity where students learn to appreciate their individuality and strengths. Second, we need to encourage our youth to have a growth mindset – that is, to perceive failures and setbacks as opportunities for growth. To do this, we as adults should let young people try and even fail, and praise efforts instead of outcome. It also entails letting young people take initiative and ownership.
The HKSARG should take the lead in recognising resilience as an overarching principle of youth development. This principle should inform decision-making on allocating resources for youth programmes. The HKSARG should also raise awareness among the public of resilience, diversity, and the growth mindset, to foster a supportive environment overall for our youth to grow up in.
This note identifies the issues pertaining to youth in Hong Kong that necessitate attention and action from the HKSARG, and hence the next Chief Executive. While it does not represent the views of all young people or stakeholders in youth development, it is my personal reflection as CoY Chairman after 420 occasions of youth engagement and public outreach during my two-year term.
What is important is that these issues are all inter-connected in terms of their effect on youth. A young person who struggles in school is likely to face obstacles in finding a job and attaining financial security as well. Yet Hong Kong’s policies pertaining to youth have always belonged to the domains of different bureaux working in silos. What is equally noteworthy is that youth work involves more actors than the HKSARG, depending on the issue at hand. Some issues can be addressed by governmental measures alone; some may be more effectively dealt with at a grassroots level or with the support of the private sector.
Herein lies the significance of a youth development policy. It allows the HKSARG to adopt a cross cutting “youth perspective” in making and implementing all of its policies affecting young people.
A youth development policy is Hong Kong’s long term vision for its youth, a unified narrative for all stakeholders, and a strategic roadmap for future actions.
Our youth are our future. They need our support to be happy, healthy and resilient. A youth development policy lays down our way forward to achieve this goal, and I ask that the next Chief Executive support us in this endeavour.