The problem of Hong Kong's ageing population has accelerated, with the proportion of people in the labour force expected to fall, according to the latest government population-policy report.
The Steering Committee on Population Policy warned yesterday that a shrinkage of the labour force as a result of the ageing population could hinder the city's development.
Its report forecast Hong Kong's population in 2040 will be just 8.3 million, well below an earlier prediction of 8.9 million. This is far short of the goal of 10 million set by Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen several years ago.
'An ageing population will lead to a shrinking labour force and present serious challenges to the productive capacity and sustainable development of Hong Kong's economy,' the report said.
The steering committee, set up in 2007 to co-ordinate policy, is led by Chief Secretary Stephen Lam Sui-lung.
It called for measures to deal with the threats to productivity, and fluctuations in the population due to movements between Hong Kong and the mainland.
The report also warned of the emerging need to help the 'grass-roots elderly', who cannot save enough for retirement.
Lam said the city would soon pass some demographic landmarks, and cited in particular the dependency ratio. The report predicts the ratio - the number of economically unproductive people for every 100 workers - will grow from 95.2 in 2015 to 104 in 2020, and to 126 in the following nine years.
The internationally desirable ratio, Lam said, was to have one worker for every non-worker, such as children and the elderly. Also, within three years, more than four out of 10 Hongkongers would not be participating in the labour market because of the population's ageing, he warned.
Lam said the recently announced ban on births in Hong Kong by mainland couples was partly responsible for the revised population projection. It could have a negative impact on long-term economic growth and productivity as the city aged, he said.
To deal with the productivity challenge, the government would set out policies to encourage more young people and women to enter the labour market; import highly skilled labour from overseas; and consider ways to raise the retirement age for both the public and private sectors.
The recommendations include ideas that have either been considered or implemented already, including a city-wide health-insurance scheme, monitoring the entry of pregnant mainland women, and a transport subsidy for the elderly.
Lam said the committee's findings could set the foundation for further policy formulation in the next administration.
Critics said yesterday's report came too late - nine years after the previous report was issued in 2003.
Paul Yip Siu-fai, professor of social administration at the University of Hong Kong, said the government had missed a golden opportunity to handle the issues arising from babies born to mainland parents, as the problem had deteriorated in the past few years.
Yip disagreed with Lam's endorsement of chief executive-elect Leung Chun-ying's decision to cut to zero next year the quota for mainland mothers giving birth in the city.
'They seem to have missed a positive opportunity to slow down the ageing of the population,' he said.
Political commentator Professor Chung Kim-wah of Polytechnic University faulted the report, saying: 'Other than the birth issue, the rest of it has more or less been covered in the past. It seems the government didn't put much effort into compiling it.'