Hong Kong faces a familiar aging problem

by Aaron Tam

AFP-JIJI

Schools replaced by care homes and a once-vibrant economy dulled by one of Asia’s oldest populations: Experts fear this is the Hong Kong of the not-too-distant future.

One in three people in the city is expected to be 65 years old or above by 2041, threatening to curb economic growth in the major financial hub, the Hong Kong government has warned.

“It is a huge concern for our population development,” says Hong Kong University social sciences professor Paul Yip, explaining that the economy will take a hit if the aging trend continues. “There will be more people but less that are working, so fewer people will be contributing to the economy of Hong Kong.”

While some critics argue that government forecasts for 2041 fail to make allowances for migration or those who will continue to work beyond the retirement age of 65, the territory faces clear challenges on an economic and social front.

The impending demographic problem is reflected in programmes such as Eldpathy, set up by Hong Kong University of Science and Technology students, which aims to foster more empathy toward the elderly by encouraging teenagers to try on special movement-restricting suits designed to simulate the sensation of age on the body.

“The plight of the aging population in Hong Kong is getting more and more serious,” says Eldpathy co-founder Samantha Kong.

For others, the problem is not so much a high population of elderly but Hong Kong’s lack of children.

Financial pressure, career-driven mentalities, limited space and exorbitant property costs are seen as key drivers of a fertility rate that is one of the lowest in the world by some measure, with an average 1.20 births per woman according to the World Bank.

“Young people do want to get married, but they just cannot afford to rent a place to live,” says Yip.

They tend to stay with parents longer in the hope of saving enough money to buy a flat, meaning that they end up waiting longer before getting married and having children, he says.

Social trends in Hong Kong also indicate that an increasing number of women are choosing not to get married. Those who do tie the knot do so much later and have a very small time window to start families, he says.

Many married couples “would rather have a pet than a child,” adds Yip.

Based on current fertility and mortality rates, if Hong Kong does not do anything about its aging problem it will have a median age of 56.3 years by 2040, according to the United Nations.

For some, the specter of a city with a diminishing workforce and lack of youthful dynamism is a very real worry. “It wouldn’t really be a city I would like to live in,” says Yip.