(Originally published in South China Morning Post, 2006-7-10 , p. A13)
Hong Kong is on the verge of a significant demographic shift - declining fertility rates and an ageing population are only two of the more obvious features. Whether these trends turn out to be threats or opportunities will depend on how we, as a community, respond to the challenges.
We need a serious public debate on some important, but long-neglected, policy issues. A good starting place is the document Enhancing Population Potential for a Sustainable Future, published by the Council for Sustainable Development last week.
It notes that Hong Kong 's population is projected to increase from 6.9 million to 8.4 million by 2033, and the proportion of the elderly is likely to increase from 12 per cent to 27 per cent. But our fertility rate is expected to stay under one child per woman - far below the replacement level of 2.1 - in the years to come. It would be easy to take a doomsday view of these figures and predict the decline of the city's competitiveness. Such alarmists might advocate quickly curbing spending on future retirees and relaxing the entry requirements for foreign talents.
But such reactions may jeopardise a sensible debate on population policy. After all, there is scant evidence from experience worldwide that a city's competitiveness suffers from an ageing population. Furthermore, the overall dependency ratio - the 65-and-over population as a proportion of the 15-64 population - projected for 2033 will be no higher than that of the early 1970s, when Hong Kong went through a period of sustained rapid growth.
The primary objective of a population policy is to safeguard and improve the quality of life of the entire population despite demographic changes and the brutal forces of globalisation. A vibrant economy is needed to serve the population, not the other way round. With this objective in mind, there are four areas in particular that warrant public debate.
First, as the demographic profile changes, there is a need to create a more diversified job market in order to make full use of the available human capital. This means job-sharing arrangements for both men and women who want to devote more time to the family; more switching opportunities for those who desire a second career in mid-life; and friendlier work environments for people of retirement age who want to continue working. How should we design public policies to encourage such changes, soon enough to make a difference?
Second, all work and no play is no joy for anyone, especially the family. Our work environment has deteriorated to such an extent that an entire population's enjoyment of life is under threat. Relieving work pressure would remove a potential deterrent to people having children. But what action can the government take to redress the balance without incurring protests from business? Should we rely on voluntary corporate social responsibility, or should there be new regulations on work conditions?
Third, while the government has no place in bedroom decisions, it can help Hongkongers feel more secure. The legislature's endorsement last week of a universal retirement scheme will go a long way to provide better security for all, encouraging people to have families.
Fourth, keeping talented people in the city requires a liveable environment. How can we reverse the trends of environmental degradation and destruction of natural and built heritage, and nurture a vigilant civil society to safeguard their future? Let us grasp this chance to formulate a strategy for a sustainable community.
Albert Lai Kwong-tak is chairman of the Hong Kong People's Council for Sustainable Development and a member of the Commission on? Strategic Development.