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  • Jul 31, 2014
  • Updated: 12:06am
CommentInsight & Opinion

Fertile ground for making Hong Kong a better place to raise a family

Paul Yip says Hong Kong needs to create a living environment that is conducive to raising children and having a fulfilling family life, and all of society must work together to achieve this

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 22 October, 2013, 7:45pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 October, 2013, 3:41am

One of the main concerns about Hong Kong's population development is the very low fertility rate of 1.28 children per woman - well below the replacement level of 2.1. And the overall picture is worse when only births among local mothers are considered.

If babies born to mainland women with a Hong Kong spouse are excluded, for example, Hong Kong's fertility rate falls to one child per woman. That is certainly one of the lowest in the world; even lower than those countries, like Japan and Singapore, that have made population policy a top priority.

Hong Kong's very low fertility rate will undoubtedly have a severe impact on society. One major problem will be a shrinking workforce, from around 2017, that will affect Hong Kong's sustainability and competitiveness.

One of the problems is that women are not having as many children as they would like. A recent survey by the Family Planning Association of Hong Kong found that there is a gap between the number of children married Hong Kong women want, and the number of children they eventually have.

This discrepancy is described as the gap between ideal and actual parity. Last year, the levels were 1.5 and 1.2 for married Hong Kong women. This means that, while each woman wants, on average, 1.5 children, she ends up having only 1.2.

Major barriers include the excessive financial burden, huge responsibility of child rearing and the unfavourable living environment. Furthermore, these concerns affect various socio-economic groups differently. For example, those with a relatively low income say that financial assistance would help, whereas a more family-friendly working environment seems more appealing to a high-income group. The middle class want a bit of everything.

We require more space to raise children; living space is well below any acceptable standard

Nevertheless, there are common major barriers. The environment for bringing up a family in Hong Kong is far from ideal, whether you are rich or not. Raising a child is not cheap. Even with the 12 years of free education, parents are still spending considerable sums on outside activities, in particular private tuition, to try to make their children more competitive. With fewer children, parents often put too much pressure on their children, and on themselves.

However, this kind of learning is counterproductive to nurturing young talent. It might help meet the expectations of achieving higher exam grades, but it fails to bring out the best in our young population or prepare them well for the changing global environment. We need to make our education system more family friendly so that everyone - teachers, parents and students - enjoys the process of learning.

Today, children of less well-off parents who can't afford tuition fees and extra-curricular activities may be deprived of developmental opportunities. Some young couples may see the responsibility of raising a child as too much to bear. An insecure job environment could add to the worry, and some may put off getting married, and having children - possibly indefinitely.

Financial incentives would certainly help alleviate some of the concerns, but society needs an environment that is more conducive to bringing up children. We require more private living and public open space to raise children; living space is well below any acceptable standard, with half of our households still having to make do with less than 500 square feet. Imagine how congested it must be having one or more children and possibly a helper in such a confined area.

Then there are house prices, which are far beyond any reasonable level of affordability. This also has an adverse effect on people's aspirations for a family. We need to create more living space and make it more affordable. Of course, it's hard to resolve the housing problem in a short time. So, for now, we should make better use of public spaces, to provide more recreational and leisure activities for the population.

Flexible hours are an important element in encouraging more working women to have children. At present, part-time work is the exception rather than the norm in our community. Why is this? Are people reluctant to change, or are employers unwilling to explore this option? Employers might see full-time workers as more convenient but they fail to consider the social cost of keeping working parents (especially women) away from their family.

Creating a more flexible working environment will help Hong Kong release hidden human resources back to the workplace. Women should not have to choose between career development and having a family. We need a more supportive environment to make change possible. It is not only the government's responsibility; the community as a whole should see the importance of backing family friendly measures, and be willing to support them.

Up to 70 per cent of women in Western Europe work, and the total fertility rate is about 1.8. Governments, individuals and communities have managed to find a balance between work and family; society agrees that a healthy family life has to be supported. In Norway, 40 per cent of a listed company's board members must be female. That sends a clear signal to the community that women's contributions are greatly valued. Hong Kong needs to make good use of its limited human capital.

There is no quick fix and no one-size-fits-all policy can break down all the barriers to having babies. Nevertheless, a family-friendly working environment, which can take different forms to meet the needs of different women, will definitely help alleviate the pressure.

It's crucial for the community to realise the urgency of the matter and respect everyone's contribution. As the government rolls out its population policy consultation, I hope we can have a meaningful discussion on the core issues and come up with polices that are relevant to, and will benefit, the whole of Hong Kong.

The bottom line is to come up with a sustainable population policy that makes Hong Kong a better place by improving the quality of life. We must seize the opportunity and ensure our views are heard so that policy is set for the people, by the people.

Paul Yip is a professor of social work and social administration at the University of Hong Kong, and a member of Hong Kong's steering committee on population policy

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johnyuan
The fertility rate likes GDP is a measuring tool but both have been wrongly used for quite sometimes. The unquestionable use of fertility rate in achieving 2.1 for fear population below it would die out is shallow thinking. It doesn’t worth the salt for a fulltime professor at HKU to spend his career on it. Hong Kong shouldn’t be led into thinking we MUST raise our fertility rate. BTW, I like to invite anyone to write to cite any place or country has vanished because of low fertility rate of the moment. Time change and people change – people’s procreation behavior changes with environmental condition around them. The sky isn’t falling only an academic’s ability to reason is falling, I am afraid.
Greenwash
Why does HK have to keep up its population? The government is running surpluses, and there is no proof that a slightly smaller working population will result in economic disaster. If the population were 6.5 million, we could knock some flats together and have some more living space. If it is too expensive in Hong Kong for retirees, as it is for so many and it would be for me, they can always get a flat in the mainland. The government should in fact, plan for a lower population and more space per person - wouldn't that be great?
johnyuan
Professor Yip who is a professor of social work and social administration at the University of Hong Kong, and a member of Hong Kong's steering committee on population policy yet after I read this article repeatedly, besides citing all the ills that facing Hong Kong population, and mainly all known for some time, I don’t see what contribution he is making in this article? It is particularly worrisome in spite his illustrious qualifications. Should he to write again for SCMP, I demand him to write honestly and state what he knows on population policy as a steering committee member. Don’t beat the bushes in keeping mum in evoking confidentiality requirement of all members and there will be no reason for him to write in SCMP anymore. We know what the problems are.
lamlm38
I think alot of HK's social issues today can b solved when the majority accepts the fact that HK is just another Chinese city with 'privilege'. Imagine how would Beijing or Shanghai city gov solve their pop problems? by importing other races?.. giving $ incentives to HK women would only improve pop marginally.. the Leung gov knows the answer to this issue but he doesnt have the balls to pull the trigger!!! so he just sends ppl for goose chase in the name of 'consultation'. good luck!!!
johnyuan
I trust Hong Kong has more common sense than to be forced blindly following the natural way of life of birth rate at 2.1 by accepting migrants with open arms no matter where they come from. Any increase in Hong Kong population will cause further permanent deterioration in environment. It doesn’t matter what preferred people inhabits.
…….
It will be a better Hong Kong when its population thins out.
.......
The government needs to review all its existing policies paving for visionary policy. I believe CY Leung being a not so insider is the best man to do so. In fact, CY Leung has begun to do so in many fronts.
impala
[Of course, it's hard to resolve the housing problem in a short time. So, for now, we should make better use of public spaces, to provide more recreational and leisure activities for the population.]

What? Huh? Really?

So Prof Yip thinks that we can close the gap between the 1.5 desired number of kids and the 1.2 by a couple of extra trees, firework displays and salsa festivals? Does he have kids? Was the number of parks in HK, and the frequency of local flea markets the decisive factor in having them?

Come on. Such (almost) touching naiveté. Those things are the icing. And his other suggestions regarding flexible work hours are that too. Norway? Norway has space. Endless amounts of it. And up to a year of maternity leave

He is mentioning, yet all but ignoring the five big elephants in this 120 sq ft bedroom:

1. Housing.
2. Housing.
3. Housing.
4. Education.
5. Pregnancy/maternity/paternity leave, and the lack of daycare facilities.

I am sure that Prof Yip is sincere in his suggestions, and that they are all sensible, but really - it won't make any noticeable statistical difference until we address the real fundamental issue: housing.

Can't be done quickly? That depends. Impose a tax on property ownership, make it double for unoccupied flats. Impose a tax on property capital gains. End the ludicrous small-house policy. Make the 470k flats 10-year target credible by designating land for them. Reduce or end the one-way permit scheme...
caractacus
All very well, but please leave the Country Parks and Green Belt alone. Future generations need them.
impala
... institute a stringent asset and income review of everybody (yes, everybody) who now lives in public housing. Impose a tax on empty plot ownership to avoid land hoarding by the developers. Impose rent controls. Limit property ownership to max 2 flats per person. Prohibit property ownership for non-residents. And so on.

And build, baby, build.

There are countless policy options that could address our housing problem. Some of these measures would have a tangible effects the day after they are announced. Others might take longer, but we could easily cherry-pick a number of them that would bring back house prices to a little more reasonable levels (median flat price of max 8~10x median income perhaps? It is over 14x now) in months, perhaps 1-2 years.

It is only a matter of political will really. Of course, our government doesn't have that will, and has so far only been able to come up with increases in stamp duty, that help a little to temporarily suppress demand, but don't address the supply side issue. And that way, nothing will change when it comes to the low fertility.

Instead, they will probably use it as an argument to keep opposing things like a universal pension scheme ('unsustainable by 2035, because gosh, look at our low fertility rate!'), investment in education ('number of children is going down, we have too many schools already!') and of course: encourage more migration from the mainland ('we need more workers, more young mothers') and so on.
johnyuan
Can anyone kindly explain in the post to me what Professor Yip wrote ‘If babies born to mainland women with a Hong Kong spouse are excluded, for example, Hong Kong's fertility rate falls to one child per woman.’ Thank you.
impala
Yes, an odd remark. It raises more questions than it answers. Prof Yip would have to explain what exactly he means by this. I am especially missing a time frame this applies to. Is this the 2012 rate? Or over a longer period?

If 1.28 is the total fertility rate (TFR) for women in Hong Kong, then having that fall to below one by excluding women who are recent entrants (I assume this is what he means....?) from the mainland, implies that the TFR for those mainland-born women is extremely high.

I mean, how much of the population (in the statistical sense, i.e. of women of child-bearing age) do they constitute? I don't know, but is it 10%? 20%? Sure it can't be a lot more than that?

Even if we would assume that 25% of young women are recent mainland immigrants, that would imply that their TFR is >2.1, compared to a TFR of <1.0 for Hong Kong women.

That seems unlikely, not in the last place since the TFR in the mainland is hardly high as well: 1.55, lower in the cities, where the one-child policy of course applies.

Are recent mainland immigrant women having double the number of babies (on average) than Hong Kong women? That would be shocking... And 25% already seems like a very generous assumption.

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