Aging population problem demands our urgent attention

Updated: 2013-12-24 07:07

By Hong Liang (HK Edition)

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Take your mind off politics for a while. We've got a much bigger issue to deal with right now: Hong Kong's rapidly aging population.

The government has set up a task force to find a solution and has also invited the public into the debate. Based on government data, the problem seems real enough. Hong Kong is running out of resources to take care of its swelling ranks of retirees.

Social experts agree that at the heart of the issue is Hong Kong's low birth rate, which, at 1.28 per woman, is well below the accepted replacement rate of 2.1. At its present level, Hong Kong's average birth rate is lower than most developed economies, including Japan and Singapore, according to Professor Paul Yip of University of Hong Kong, who also sits on the government's steering committee on population policy.

In an article which appeared in the South China Morning Post, Yip argues for the creation of a more family-friendly environment to encourage procreation. Without offering concrete suggestions, he talks about the shortcomings in the environment, education and housing that have brought many couples around to the view that it's simply too difficult to raise children in Hong Kong. As a result, many have put off having any indefinitely.

Other than the top 1 percent of a rich minority, the rest of the population can certainly relate to the problems touched on in Yip's article. Even middle-class families are finding that the total cost of raising children in Hong Kong is increasingly becoming prohibitive.

The crux of the issue, as most people already know, lies in the exorbitant housing prices in Hong Kong. As Yip notes, living space in Hong Kong is "well below any acceptable standard with half of our households still having to make do with less than 500 square feet."

If you have problem understanding what this means, be prepared to be shocked. A 100 square feet room in Sheung Shui, the most faraway township from the city center, costs more than HK$3,000 a month to rent. The rent of a barely decent 500 square feet apartment anywhere on Hong Kong Island can easily exceed HK$15,000 a month, even for an unfurnished flat.

At this price, it is not a surprise that the average family in Hong Kong is spending at least half of its total income on putting a roof over its head. The added cost of raising children would seem most daunting under such circumstances.

To be sure, a free nine-year education and affordable medical service have helped greatly ease the pressure of child rearing. But many Hong Kong parents want a great deal more for their children, including private-school education, which is prohibitively expensive.

The government is stepping up its efforts to attract young talented people, especially those from the mainland. It is encouraging them to stay after finishing their studies in Hong Kong by proposing to extend the time for them find jobs after graduation from one year to two. But the problem is that there is little Hong Kong can offer to entice them to settle down to make Hong Kong their home.

Many mainland people I know have told me that there is a lot to like about Hong Kong. But the high cost of housing has made them reluctant to make a long-term commitment here. Many of them have returned to the mainland after gaining the necessary working experience while some others moved on to greener pastures elsewhere.

We can't blame them. The high cost of housing has become a bane that has demoralized many Hong Kong people and forced others to seriously consider emigration as the only way out. The Hong Kong government has proposed to greatly increase the supply in coming year to ease the pressure.

Such an adjustment, even if unfettered by developers and other interested parties, would take a long time to work through the market. As long as housing prices remain at levels that few Hong Kong people can afford, there is no point discussing a population policy. Nothing else will work.

The author is a senior editor with China Daily. jamesleung@chinadaily.com.cn.

(HK Edition 12/24/2013 page1)