Time to tackle this alarming issue
The workforce is shrinking while there is an unprecedented rise in number of older people
Population policy is an important issue that was very much neglected by former chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen's administration for seven years.
The present government, however, takes the matter seriously and has set up a high-level committee to deal with it. The committee is chaired by the chief secretary and includes six other policy secretaries and other department and bureau staff. I have been asked to serve on the steering committee.
The rapid changes to Hong Kong's demographic profile mean the city is facing a very acute situation, which will require collective and effective measures. The most alarming change is the shrinking workforce and unprecedented increase in the number of older adults in the population. The labour force increased by 8.4 per cent, from 3.4 million to 3.7 million, between 2001 and 2011 - whereas the entire population aged 15 or over increased 11.6 per cent in the same period.
The labour force participation rate has dropped from 61 per cent to 60 per cent, and is expected to fall further as retiree numbers grow in future. Also, the number of adults aged 65 or over will increase at a rapid rate - from 941,000 in 2011 to 2.56 million in 2031. The demand for health care and social services is expected to increase at an unsustainable rate. Further, the economic dependency ratio - the number of inactive people supported by every working person - is increasing from less than 0.9 in the past decade to more than 1.2 in the next two decades, a rise of more than 30 per cent.
How should we respond to these challenges? First, it is important to maintain a favourable age distribution in Hong Kong's population to make sure the city can sustain its own development. At present the overall dependency ratio - the 65-and-over population as a proportion of the 15-64 population - is at its historic lowest point of 333 per 1,000. But it is due to increase rapidly to more than 648 in 2031. The ageing of our population can be slowed by birth as well as by migration. This is not an either/or situation: it will require contributions in both areas to find a solution.
Given Hong Kong's very low fertility rate - 1.2 babies per woman - it is important to understand the barriers to parenthood faced by Hongkongers, and how we can mitigate the pressures that create problems for family formation and child-bearing. For migration, we need to create an attractive city for quality migrants to settle. The community should appreciate the contribution that migrants have made to Hong Kong.
We also need to empower our own work force and meet the needs of residents. Empowerment can be addressed by investing in the education of our young to improve productivity. Meeting the needs of the community should be addressed by developing our social and health-care infrastructure and enhancing the people's physical and mental health.
We need to come up with SMART solutions to deal with the population issues - i.e. S-specific, M-measurable, A-attainable, R-realistic and T-timely. The understanding and support of the community is essential. At the end of the day, the population policy involves - and affects - everyone.
Professor Paul Yip Siu-fai is the director of the Centre for Suicide Research and Prevention.