Just what is so bad about an ageing population anyway?

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 June, 2012, 12:00am


'An ageing population will lead to a shrinking labour force and present serious challenges to the productive capacity and sustainable development of Hong Kong's economy.'

Steering Committee on Population Policy
SCMP, May 31

It is not this committee's findings that draw my attention so much as its mindset. Just what is so bad about a shrinking labour force and a lower productive capacity?

If more people find that they can spend their days in long conversation at yum cha and otherwise delight in their favourite pursuits instead of grinding away for the boss in a bleak office or behind a sales counter all day long, well, I think that's a good thing and may more people enjoy that life.

It is what many people find they can do when the nestlings have flown and responsibilities are lighter. With an ageing population and slower population growth, proportionately more of them have the opportunity to enjoy it.

But it also means that economic growth slows down and proportionately more money is spent on social services instead of our designated mission of slathering the entire territory of Hong Kong in concrete, glass, steel and bitumen.

Can't have that.

Why, if we tolerate economic slowdown, Hong Kong's place in the world will decline. We may even slip behind Singapore that way. How would our chief executive then be able to hold up his head at high-level international talk shops or sleep for US$6,900 a night in foreign capitals?

The point of economic effort, as everyone knows, is to polish up the standing of the government of the locality that puts in the effort. People are economic output units whose quality must constantly be upgraded to ensure rising unit productivity for the sake of the flag. Have you never been told of the purpose of life?

In aid of this task our civil servants are not always above pulling the facts by the nose. The short blue line in the chart represents our actual population count. It has consistently been less than planning department projections, the latest of which is shown in the red line and was even more ambitious than one five years ago. It projects a population of 8.9 million in 2040. The steering committee now suggests 8.3.

Planning department motto: when the facts refute you, close your eyes and keep pouring the concrete. The alternative is unthinkable. Where there is no growth there need be no planning for growth and who wants a planning department then?

The curved green line at the bottom represents what the US Census Bureau estimates for us. It is obviously an overfunded bureau if it bothers itself with counting people in Hong Kong, but at least it has no hang-up about pipping someone else to be world's biggest player.

But I hear you. The real reason, you say, that our government is worried about lower productive capacity with an ageing population is that someone will have to pay for all these retired people.

I don't buy it. In the first place older people live well on next to nothing as long as they have their accommodation costs locked in, which, with our generous public housing programmes, they largely have done. It's bus fare, yum cha, and a few changes of clothes.

And if it is their greater medical needs that concern us, we have net fiscal savings in the public treasure chest of HK$1.4 trillion at present, more than enough to fund a world-beating public health plan for everyone here with no further drain on tax revenues.

Oh, but, yes, I forgot. That would mean we wouldn't use the money to keep building roads and bridges from nowhere to nowhere in order to create work for planners and votes in Legco.

Sorry. I take it back. Can't have that. What was I thinking?