Hong Kong can’t afford to lose the Umbrella Movement generation

Get these kids back to work!
Get these kids back to work!
Image: Reuters/Bobby Yip
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HONG KONG—The Hong Kong government has portrayed the Umbrella Movement protesters who are occupying the center of the city as naive idealists, and Beijing believes they are foreign-backed trouble-makers.

But the resilience of protesters who have been camped out for weeks now is a sign there’s an even darker phenomenon haunting Asia’s financial capital: a generation that has no faith in Hong Kong’s political system or the city’s ability to provide a bright future, at a time when Hong Kong desperately needs them. Last night, as thousands of people, mostly in their twenties and thirties, marked the one-month anniversary of the start of the protests, Scholarism founder Joshua Wong sounded a dire warning: “The ruling echelons have already lost this generation.”

It’s not just protesters sounding the alarm. None other than China’s richest man, Alibaba founder Jack Ma, said this week that the protests were not about the relationship between China and Hong Kong, but ”about the young people who don’t have hope. All the big guys take…the good things and the young people feel hopeless.”

No country or culture can easily afford to “lose” a generation, whether it’s to emigration, disease, political dissatisfaction or any other factor that causes them to opt out of becoming the breadwinners, tax payers, administrators, politicians and business builders every society needs.

But Hong Kong is an extreme case. The city’s approximately 7 million citizens are heavily skewed toward middle-age or older, and live longer than nearly every where else in the world. Meanwhile, Hong Kong’s incredibly low birth rate means the generations behind the protesters are dwindling.

The government’s own estimates (pdf, pg. 6) point to a potentially catastrophic demographic future that is going to land right in the laps of student-age protesters. By 2041, the number of “elderly dependents” over 65—who are likely to be living off of social services, savings, or other relatives—will make up nearly half of Hong Kong’s population, if current trends continue:

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And the burden of caring for them, or paying for the social services that they need, will fall heavily on many in Hong Kong who are protesting now—by then, a 20-year-old protester will be 47. That’s considered right in the heart “peak earning years” for high school and college graduates.

Making matters more complicated, Hong Kong’s citizens are especially long-lived—82 years for men and 85.6 years for women, forth in the world behind Japan, Singapore and Andora. But mandatory retirement ages for civil servants, who make up a major portion of Hong Kong’s labor force, are currently just 55 or 60. Already, the elderly fare much worse economically than the rest of the population, with more than 40% of people over age of 65 living below the poverty line, when government subsidies are not accounted for:

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Some of Hong Kong’s older citizens even collect trash and recyclable materials to scrape together enough to pay their rent, as the SCMP recently reported.

The situation puts the Hong Kong government in a tight squeeze. Protesters are demanding universal suffrage, something Beijing has already said is impossible. But alienating the protesters even further, whether by forcefully clearing the protests sites or refusing to listen to their demands, could harm Hong Kong’s long term future.

In the end, the Umbrella Movement’s final outcome could hinge on demographics as much as democracy.