Children of status

PUBLISHED : Friday, 10 August, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 10 August, 2007, 12:00am

Have you got it all - a house on The Peak, a yacht, a corporate jet, a bevy of maids to take care of your pedigree dogs, a pond full of koi and every exclusive club membership worth having? If trends in North America and Europe are any guide, you are missing the biggest status symbol of all: a clutch of children.

For the past decade, the wealthy of the western world have been having children at a rate up to several times above national averages. Whereas in the past, they traditionally had the smallest families, now it is usual for the super-rich to have a veritable brood.

Statistics in the US show, for example, that the country club set is now almost 30 per cent more likely to have three or more children than in 1997. The households of those comprising the Forbes 400 richest Americans have an average of 2.88 children, 1.08 more than the upper-middle class in the US.

The reasons for the shift are not clear. Some experts suggest it is because a generation of overachieving career women have decided to call it quits and, instead of putting their energies into making money, are now working on producing babies.

How true this may be is a matter for greater statistical analysis; whatever the reason, though, there is already a term for the phenomenon: competitive birthing.

As anyone stumbling to raise one or two offspring on a normal salary knows, children cost a small fortune. With half a dozen or more, given the most exclusive of everything, the amount needed would be nothing short of phenomenal.

There is, however, a far more practical side to the baby boom that Hong Kong would do well to capitalise on. We have a rapidly ageing population and one of the world's lowest per capita birth rates - factors that could well harm our competitiveness in coming decades; yet, globally, we also have the 10th fastest-growing population of US-dollar millionaires. A report by Merrill Lynch and Capgemini, released in June, showed that Hong Kong had 86,618 millionaires last year, 12.2 per cent more than in 2005. The surging stock market was cited as the reason for the increase - and, with the continued dramatic rise this year, that figure has no doubt gone up spectacularly.

Even more enticingly for those who see the cream of our financially well-off crop of citizens as potential population saviours, a Citibank survey in February found that the majority of the 276,000 Hong-Kong-dollar millionaires it estimated live here were women. Unfortunately, there was no indication of what percentage were of child-bearing age.

The government has an uphill job on its hands to convince the middle class, and those below, to have children. Most live in small apartments that are not conducive to having more than one child. Even if there is room, the cost of raising a child in our city is prohibitive, especially when it comes to a good-quality education.

Incentives offered by the authorities for couples to have more children are not enticing, either: tax breaks are mean or meaningless, depending on how much is earned, while Hong Kong is still in the dark ages when it comes to maternity and paternity leave, and reasonable working hours so that a family can spend time together.

Scandinavian countries have the right idea, although employers here would surely baulk at the generosity of these nations. Nonetheless, the fundamentals are plain: large cash payments for each new birth; bonuses for having babies close together; at least 14 weeks of fully paid maternity leave and two weeks or more off work on the same terms for fathers; the provision of quality child care at an affordable price; and greater security for all workers.

Such terms and conditions will make it worth a couple's while to raise a family. Without these, Hong Kong's only hope is that the trend sweeping the west for the super-rich to have more children quickly catches on here.

The sobering alternative is on show on the Sai Kung waterfront every Sunday: couples pushing pet dogs and cats in strollers.

Peter Kammerer is the Post's foreign editor



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