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City must make grey matter

Published on Thursday, 16 Jun 2011
Some seniors who settled on the mainland have returned to Hong Kong and want a job.
Photo: Dickson Lee

A shop selling geriatric equipment has just opened on Shau Kei Wan Road, opposite the Sai Wan Ho MTR station. It's the fourth shop of its kind on this short road that stretches from Tai Koo Shing to the tram terminus.

On this same road, there are no fewer than 10 homes for the elderly. That's not counting a few more in the side streets of the Shau Kei Wan area. The most elegant care homes for old people started just over a year ago. This is the private entrepreneurial response to the greying of Hong Kong. However, it barely scratches the surface of the city's greying problem.

According to the latest projections of the Census and Statistics Department, the city's population will increase from 6.8 million in 2009 to 8.63 million in 2039 while the proportion of people aged 65 or above will see a significant rise from 13 per cent to 28 per cent in 2039.

In just under 30 years, the working population, aged 15 to 64, is projected to drop from 75 per cent to 62 per cent. This means that people who are now in secondary and tertiary education will bear the brunt of this problem.

Experts say there need not be a problem at all if the government starts preparing for it now, but there is no sign of this happening.

According to a Hong Kong member of the National People's Congress (NPC), who asked not to be named, the government had thought of building low-cost housing for the elderly in Shenzhen.

However, the recent surge in the cost of living and spiralling land prices on the mainland have killed the plan. In fact, some old people who had settled in Guangdong are now returning to Hong Kong, where the cost of living has dropped and is likely to fall further, the NPC member says.

The original thinking also envisaged replacing Hong Kong's elderly with younger, talented people from the mainland. But this plan, too, has been dented by China's rapid economic development, which means better opportunities for its young people.

Professor Alan Siu Kai-fat, executive director of the Hong Kong Institute of Economic and Business Strategy at the University of Hong Kong, says the changing demographics reflects "the rapid ageing of the Hong Kong population, as the post-war baby boomers started to go on to retirement a couple of years ago."

"What can be done? The most fundamental approach is re-examine Hong Kong's population policy - encourage more non-local young and productive workers to settle in Hong Kong, and formulate policies to boost the fertility rates of local women," Siu says.

"A supporting policy is to make Hong Kong workers more and more productive, so that fewer workers can shoulder a higher dependency ratio. How to make older people healthier also merits attention."

This, of course, opens up opportunities in health care, fitness programmes management, asset management and even education.

But the real solution to an ageing population is to increase fertility rates. For this, job security and adequate housing are vital. But the government does not seem prepared to tackle these problems.

According to the NPC member, even the central authorities in Beijing are concerned about the Hong Kong government's lack of thinking and planning on this issue.

Also of concern to planners is the growing attitude of young women, such as Jane Liu, a journalism student at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. "More and more young women want a free life. Family means responsibility," she says.


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