Elderly men gather in a public area in Choi Wan Estate, Wong Tai Sin District, on June 20. Photo: Edmond So
Neville Lai
Neville Lai

Ease Hong Kong’s brain drain by re-educating and integrating elderly into workforce

  • Sustaining Hong Kong’s workforce and economic engine requires re-evaluating our traditional approach to retirement and attitude towards retirees
  • Empowering retirees and older workers, and bolstering their skills, will help Hong Kong seize the opportunities created by longer life expectancy
Brain drain is an issue for Hong Kong. Former chief executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said earlier this year the problem was “unarguable” amid the city’s stringent Covid-19 restrictions and the ripple effects from the 2019 pro-democracy protests.
Hong Kong lost an estimated 93,000 residents in 2020 and another 23,000 last year. Early reports suggest departures will continue at pace this year as businesses consider leaving the city.
Many departing families are taking their children abroad, creating a surge in school vacancies. More than 30,000 school-age children have left Hong Kong, representing close to a 4 per cent decrease in pupils at kindergartens, primary and secondary schools.

Policies need to be implemented to train and retain local talent, as well as attract skilled immigrants, for Hong Kong to ensure the long-term success of its workforce. However, these policies must be complemented with a more comprehensive strategy for the elderly.

At some point, Hong Kong will not have enough young people to support its dependent older population. This is evident in census figures that show the trend of a shrinking population below the age of 59 while the population aged 60 and above is growing.

Sustaining Hong Kong’s workforce and economic engine requires re-evaluating our traditional approach to retirement. The current approach is not financially or economically viable in the long term.


Hong Kong has the world’s highest life expectancy, here’s why

Hong Kong has the world’s highest life expectancy, here’s why
While Hong Kong does not have an official retirement age, most people assume it is 65, when people can access and withdraw their Mandatory Provident Fund (MPF) benefits. Yet, Hong Kong has the world’s highest life expectancy at 85.4 years, meaning people on average will live 20 years after retirement.
Relying solely on the MPF plus perhaps some life savings might not be enough to secure a comfortable life, given the city’s high cost of living and rising housing prices. That is in addition to the increased medical costs associated with old age and chronic diseases.

Those in lower-income groups could apply for government subsidies, but those come with stringent criteria. The Comprehensive Social Security Assistance scheme requires a single person aged 65 or older to have less than HK$51,000 (US$6,500) in assets, while a single, able-bodied adult younger than 65 must have less than HK$34,000.

The government should shift its focus to empowering retirees and investigate how society can seize the opportunities created by longevity. It could train the city’s workforce to become a more adaptable economic resource.

Re-educating the workforce is crucial. The Continuing Education Fund increased its maximum subsidy to HK$20,000 in April 2019, with another rise to HK$25,000 set for next month. Eliminating the age ceiling for applicants is a good start. Education should be available to all segments of society, not just young people.
According to Our Hong Kong Foundation, the city lags behind in terms of continuing education as a percentage of total education spending. Hong Kong’s figure in 2019-2020 was just 0.5 per cent, well behind Singapore’s 5.9 per cent and Germany’s 7.3 per cent.

Faced with ageing society and brain drain, how can Hong Kong retain talent?

The workforce should be inspired to polish essential skills and learn a variety of new ones while taking time out to reskill and upskill. While online courses are widespread, the government should do more to encourage upskilling by older people who may be less willing or able to use online services.

The private sector and the government should make a point of employing retirees in both full-time and part-time positions. This would build a solid foundation for workplaces that are friendly to all ages.
While Hong Kong came fifth among 63 economies in this year’s World Competitiveness Yearbook from IMD, its business efficiency rating continued its slide from first in 2018, to seventh in 2022. Its rankings suffered particularly in the labour market, employment and societal framework sectors, all related to issues such as an ageing population, social cohesion and income distribution.

The current approach is not viable for Hong Kong or its rapidly ageing workforce. The government and society must work together to solve the problem, integrating the elderly into the workforce and enabling them to age healthily and contentedly. We must find ways to seize the opportunities offered by the increasingly grey market.

Neville Lai is an independent researcher and writer