How Hong Kong can make its ageing society an ‘age-friendly society’ that benefits everyone
Paul Yip and Asghar Zaidi say that with Hong Kong’s 65 and older population set to double over the next 25 years, investments in health care, education, job training, fair wages and an efficient retirement system are necessary to care for the elderly while benefiting the young
An age-friendly society is one where everyone can participate in community activities regardless of how old they are. It is a society that also makes it easier for the elderly to stay engaged. Therefore, Hong Kong should aim to build an age-friendly society that is by default a society for the aged.
Hong Kong has been ageing rapidly, as is the case in many Asian societies. Currently, more than 14 per cent of our population, equivalent to more than 1 million people, are aged 65 or above.
The government has spent considerable resources to cope with existing needs and enhance services for older adults. In fact, billions of dollars have been spent on social security payments, medical services and old-age allowances.
The popular HK$2 public transport subsidy scheme, for example, is estimated to cost the government another HK$1.2 billion this year. Institutional care support for older adults, meanwhile, is insufficient. What is available is mostly expensive.
Such social protection measures naturally have a bias towards the elderly, and are therefore considered “aged-friendly” but not necessarily beneficial for younger people. An age-friendly society is a community in which everyone (young, and not so young alike) can live, work and enjoy living there.
A society for all ages aims to empower everyone to contribute to the wellness of the community. It should, for example, also include quality care services for infants, babies and school-age children. Parents should be better supported to look after their children and/or elderly parents.
Younger adults should be provided with quality education and training to develop and prosper. Adults in employment should have a family-friendly working environment. Society should have enough parks and green recreational spaces for all ages.
In fact, the classifications of “young” and “old” based on age has become less meaningful. The generation presently aged 65-plus may well be in shape as good as those aged 50 in last two decades.
Life expectancy in Hong Kong has been continuously improving for both men and women, presently at 83 and 87, respectively. If someone retires at 60 or 65, they still have many years ahead of them, so it is important to ensure individuals at different stages of life can be helped and are able to develop to their fullest potential.
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It is understandable that an ageing society causes concern and there are many fears about its negative impact on economic growth and the sustainability of pension systems.
The proportion of those aged 65 and over has increased significantly. In Hong Kong, it will take just 25 years for the percentage of those aged 55 and above to double from 7 per cent to 14 per cent. That figure is 27 years for South Korea; 35 years for mainland China and 37 years for Japan. In contrast, it will take Sweden 85 years to see the same increase in the numbers of the elderly and 115 years for France.
Sources: Kinella and Gist 1995; US Census bureau, international database, 2017 release; 2017 national population projection
Hence it is not only the magnitude but the rate of change that matters. We do not have much time to make preparations to respond to the rapidly changing environment.
To be age-friendly, we need to adopt a holistic approach to life to ensure the wellness of the population at every stage.
Investment in our children through a quality education for everyone is like an insurance policy to cover for us. With less frustration among young people, there would also be fewer people on the street demonstrating.
A good public health care system provides affordable and accessible health care services for all. A system ensuring a fair working wage ensures everyone can benefit from fruits of economic development. A cost-efficient retirement system sustains quality of life for older adults. Providing a choice for older adults to continue to work and improving their employability also helps to reduce poverty.
The recent public annuity scheme is one way to make good use of community resources to help support people in retirement. Those who can afford it will receive support with a government guarantee. For those less fortunate, the government should be able to channel more resources to help them.
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These measures for different age groups are interconnected and dependent. For example, good education and training is still the most effective way to alleviate poverty. A good health care system and work environment ensures our working population stays healthy and productive. In this way, age-friendly policies can be integrated, providing a holistic approach for the whole of society.
We need to create an environment where people can realise their fullest potential for their own well-being and the betterment of society as a whole. We need to build up our human capital pool to be innovative. We need to broaden our horizons, to be inclusive and build a strong community network to help each other.
Everyone can contribute in an age-friendly society. And, in achieving this, the burden on government can be reduced and everyone would be happier.
Paul Yip is chair professor in the Department of Social Work and Social Administration at the University of Hong Kong. Asghar Zaidi is a visiting professor of the Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion (CASE), at the London School of Economics and Political Science