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