Young people being failed by Hong Kong’s old policies


Professor Stefan KÜHNER


The Hong Kong government’s increased investment in post-secondary education has led to an expanding population of associate and university degree graduates. However, the city’s economy has become increasingly dependent on a service sector offering a limited number of extremely well-paid professional positions. Growing percentage of graduates are therefore having to work in jobs they are overqualified for, and which may at times be insecure and lowly paid. 


Professor Stefan Kühner, Associate Professor in Lingnan’s Department of Sociology and Social Policy, has been working with a group of faculty from the School of Graduate Studies, and from the university’s Asia-Pacific Institute of Ageing Studies, to examine the weaknesses of Hong Kong’s prevailing welfare settlement.


More specifically, he’s recently been examining the way the increasingly uncertain transition from education to work is affecting young people’s overall well-being, including their subjective happiness and life-satisfaction. For this research, Professor Kühner was able to tap into the significant volume of cross-disciplinary research conducted by Hong Kong’s policy analysts, social workers and psychologists, among others.


Despite the SAR already having one of the lowest fertility rates in the world, his study shows that the financial and job pressures young people face – most notably around the cost of housing, problems finding suitable childcare, and long working hours - have a greater impact on their mental well-being than factors such as whether they are single or married.


Traditionally, East Asian societies have had a culture of familial welfare. It’s therefore been the children’s, not the government’s, responsibility to secure gainful employment and care for elderly relatives. Professor Kühner’s research found, if young people in Hong Kong are struggling to find a job, or can only secure a low paid one, they, and society, are more likely to blame this on their personal deficiencies rather than on structural issues with the economy. But, he believes, it’s time to recognise the current low-tax, non-interventionist approach is leaving people behind and there are considerable structural barriers to young people boarding the traditional career train.


In Hong Kong, the value of any welfare programme has frequently been assessed primarily in terms of its contribution to the overall economy, rather than the degree to which it meets the needs of individuals. Fears have regularly been expressed that raising taxes to pay for a more secure safety net, which includes a wage policy and stronger protection for workers, would harm the economy and create welfare dependency.


Fundamentally, Professor Kühner notes, the issue boils down to a question of the way in which a society should deal with the risks of unemployment or underemployment, of sickness, and of running out of money in old age. Do we feel these risks should fall only on the individual or the family unit? Or do we think society as a whole should pool some of these risks?


His previous research has shown him that a considerable expansion of social protection systems – as seen in South Korea, Japan, Taiwan - can also have a positive effect on the economy. For example, he points out, when childcare is more accessible, young parents are more likely to continue in their careers. Similarly, if the wedge between the richest and poorest in society is reduced, young people are more inclined to take risks as entrepreneurs to the benefit of the Hong Kong knowledge economy.


To know more about Professor Stefan KÜHNER's research projects, please click Lingnan Scholars.