On the watch
Young Asians have supported the Occupy Wall Street phenomenon by occupying their own cities in the past month. Whether or not one supports these Occupy movements, what's unmistakable is the fact that it is not just the bottom rungs of our society who are dissatisfied with the status quo. It is also those who are in their prime years, having received decent education and grown up as Asia's tiger economies were taking off. They are the 'tiger cubs' - young people who grew up in Asia's fast- growing economies with protective parents who use their newfound affluence to ensure that their children make the most of opportunities that the elder generation never had.
Three decades ago, Asia was poor, far behind the West. Today it is being hailed by Western media as a continent of promise and possibility.
The parents of today's young Asians knew hunger and revolution. Now, their children are better-fed and better-educated, and have access to the world through the internet in a way that would have been unthinkable at the time they were born. Thanks to heavy investments in education, more of them can go to school and, once there, study for more years than their parents. They can aspire to jobs in areas of biotech, engineering, information technology and finance that did not exist a generation ago.
However, from these tiger cubs' perspective, Asia faces unprecedented challenges. Despite the rosy picture of Asia's economic growth, many young Asians are uncertain that they will have better lives than their parents.
Based on almost 400 essays submitted to the Asia's Challenge 2020 contest, designed to look at the biggest challenges facing the region in the next decade, the tiger cubs as a group are both hopeless and hopeful. They are worried about a myriad of problems that Asia is facing, yet are hopeful about Asia's rise.
A recurring theme is that human capital development is of utmost importance. The tiger cubs are troubled by the unequal access to education, particularly for poor rural children and for girls. They lament that the majority of schools do not sufficiently teach communication and creativity. Unemployment, or underemployment, of educated young Asians appears to be the new reality.
Echoing the sentiments of many Occupy protesters, the tiger cubs are worried about widening income disparities and the lack of economic mobility. The sense that hard work does not lead to a better life because of an unequal playing field increasingly breeds resentment towards the rich. They are concerned about the abject poor who are vulnerable to everything from natural disasters to global economic meltdowns, and for whom the question is not improving life so much as sustaining it.
They are also worried about their demographic destiny - overpopulation in some countries, threatening jobs and the quality of life, and population ageing in other countries that means an increasing demand for health care and other social services supported by a smaller working population.
What can be done about these challenges? Perhaps surprisingly, at a time when trust in government and business institutions seems to be eroding, tiger cubs think governments and businesses are a central part of the solution.
Their recommendations for governments include establishing well-organised teaching programmes and fixing teacher absenteeism in more backward areas; shifting resources away from urban centres to avoid polarised development; and using information technologies and employing retired doctors to lower costs while ensuring quality health-care services for elderly patients.
For private firms, recommendations range from training students to become innovative and results-oriented, to providing jobs and better working conditions for workers outside major cities, to designing products and services catering to the elderly and promoting age-friendly workplace policies.
These young Asians will one day take over the reins of power in the region. Policymakers and corporate leaders would be wise to focus on their concerns, ideas and aspirations, and make themselves part of the solution, as recommended by these young Asians.
Doing so should help reduce the negative sentiments of protesters and defuse social and political tensions. It would also increase the capacity for Asia to deal with its long-term challenges and ensure that they do not derail the region's growth. It would see that the energy of the Occupy movements is channelled to constructive ends.
Janet Pau is the programme director of the Hong Kong-based Asia Business Council. She is the co-author of Through the Eyes of Tiger Cubs: Views of Asia's Next Generation