Insecure and uncertain, Hong Kong youth are struggling to cope with the transition to adulthood

Trevor Lee says a lack of job security leading to a worthwhile career is a major cause of young people's angst, leaving them feeling unprepared to assume their adult responsibilities

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 27 August, 2015, 12:39pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 27 August, 2015, 8:34pm

The youth of today in Hong Kong are being subjected to more harsh criticism than ever before. Authoritative figures seem fed up with the narcissistic and unruly behaviour of millennials. The former Chinese University vice-chancellor's criticism of the young protesters who stormed a University of Hong Kong council meeting, calling them "spoiled brats", is just one instance that has intensified the tension between generations.

Indeed, mutterings of disgust about our young, not just in the political realm, resonate in everyday life: Why are so many people in their 20s taking so long to grow up? Why do so many still rely heavily on their parents for cash and "daily care"? They are procrastinating over getting a job or drifting through employment. Is it simply a lost generation, personal failure or a lifestyle choice?

Apparently, many tend to place all the blame on the shoulders of individual youths or their "reckless" parents. But we need to acknowledge that many young people are struggling in life. A new developmental stage is emerging, between adolescence and adulthood. From late teens through much of the 20s, these "emerging adults" seek to explore their own identity and self and do not feel ready to assume traditional adult responsibilities, such as a career and family.

Mutterings of disgust about our young, not just in the political realm, resonate in everyday life

I am not sure this has turned young people into "spoiled brats". But it is a stage that most youth across the globe have to adjust to.

What are the driving forces that contribute to a growing sense of insecurity and uncertainty among our young? One explanation may be their grim job prospects. Today's economy is very different from that of their parents; simply working hard and getting a good education is no longer enough to succeed.

Also, over the past few decades, there has been an expansion of "precarious jobs", which provide relatively low wages and offer no hope of security or advancement. Driven by the competitive global economy and technological development, such non-standard work is uncertain and unprotected; examples include those in the informal sector, and temporary, part-time jobs and casual labour. In these jobs, the worker bears all the risk in terms of stability of employment, not the state or employer.

Some "regular" jobs have also become more insecure because of the pressure on employers to be more flexible. Such work is not new to this generation, but it is a growing phenomenon, and is causing increasing concern worldwide.

These are dead-end jobs that lead to long-term underemployment, unstable work identities, and unreliable livelihoods. Young people are particularly vulnerable to - and may be overrepresented in - the trap of precarious work.

Sociologist Richard Sennett extends the idea to wider society, in which the lack of a long-term nature in precarious work is "a principle which corrodes trust, loyalty and mutual commitment". The employment relationship is no longer defined by mutual loyalty and the promise of stability but rather, by employability; that is, the worker's ability to secure their next job. Thus, the real onus of labour relations falls solely on the workers.

With this overwhelming insecurity and stress, it is not surprising that many in their 20s postpone adult commitments and responsibilities by extending schooling, delaying marriage and so on.

In fact, the ebb and flow of generational precarity starts well before students enter the labour market. A student on an internship or a part-time job may think it brings them a positive, value-added personal experience. However, they may not have considered that they and other students are implicitly forced by the labour market into playing this "game" and doing this precarious work in the hope of securing a good job later on. Imagine, then, the irony of being able to find only other precarious work upon graduation.

This is just one way of seeing the issues facing Hong Kong's youth. But we should not dismiss their seeds of disquiet by putting them down. Instead, perhaps the detractors should put themselves in their shoes before judging or criticising.

Trevor Lee is a social researcher at Chinese University