Some very senior leaders I have spoken to recently, from both the private and public sectors, are quick to dismiss the alarming unemployment rate among fresh graduates in Hong Kong as just another recession-related anomaly that will correct itself when the economy picks up. They said the Class of 2020 is no different from the Financial Crisis Class of 2009, or the Sars Class of 2003, when the severe acute respiratory syndrome epidemic hit.
I respectfully – and wholeheartedly – disagree. The Class of 2020 is not your typical recession-hit class. This year brings new challenges that need to be addressed with fresh perspectives, rather than stopgap measures that may have worked in the past. The problems may persist (or get worse) well into the Class of 2021 and beyond, creating a disengaged generation with chronic unemployability. This is sad but true; this structural problem, if left unaddressed, would become a problem for generations.
Before Covid-19 struck, 2020 was considered a pivotal year, starting off a brand new decade that would change the way we work because of a confluence of technological advances: 5G, artificial intelligence, smart cities, you name it. Has the Class of 2020 been educated to anticipate and participate in these tidal waves of change?
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While Covid-19 has disrupted some of these trends, it has accelerated the development of new paths. Think of the worldwide work-from-home experiment, which has sparked debates of a new normal where young people increasingly seek non-traditional livelihoods rather than endure the traditional nine-to-five grind. The experiment has yielded mixed results, with young employees discovering they cannot always be as productive working in their tiny homes, let alone be competitive.
Just sit down with any random graduate to understand where they are coming from – something I am doing more often to decode the disconnect and struggles of Hong Kong’s “lost generation”.
One fresh graduate said that more than half his friends are jobless. Are they worried? Surprisingly, no. They are comfortable waiting it out, enjoying their idle time, bingeing on Netflix or the NBA basketball playoffs.
And there is the rub. When jobs in many sectors have been all but obliterated, and many displaced blue-collar workers can barely scrape together a living, how can Hong Kong’s “best and brightest” afford to stay idle and “happily unemployed”?
“Privilege and self-entitlement” are simplistic answers. Digging deeper, the answer lies within the psyche of those born after 1997, a generation groping for identity amid ever bleaker realities in the only city they know.
The issues are well known: a festering desperation from the inability to own a home or access economic opportunities like their parents did. Graduates today take home less salary than their counterparts 30 years ago, and many end up in unskilled jobs. Why bother?
The real elephant in the room is that many youngsters born after 1997 grew up believing they were the best of the best, as the 50-year transition was based on the theory that China would take 50 years to catch up with Hong Kong. They see headlines touting Hong Kong as a world-class financial centre with the fifth-largest stock market in the world. Then they realise, as they enter the real world, that maybe they are not as good as they thought.
What did we miss? Where did we fail the young men and women of Hong Kong?
Is it possible that Hong Kong’s laissez-faire policies, long credited for the city’s rise to become the freest economy in the world, have also failed us? Nobel laureates in economics have spoken about the dangers of unchecked capitalism, and that government intervention is sometimes necessary to check the excesses of the free market.
This seems the case not just in the business sector, where the rich get richer and the poor poorer, but also in the city’s education sector, where as many as 20 per cent of students in University Grants Committee-funded universities are foreigners.
This speaks volumes about the calibre of Hong Kong’s universities in attracting the world’s best and brightest. But if you listen closely to the whispers on campus, you will sense a whiff of resentment bubbling.
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Hong Kong students love diversity in their universities, and they understand that healthy competition is good for them. But if they are somehow made to feel that the system has not adequately prepared them for unbridled competition, then something must be woefully amiss.
Many of our graduates do not feel very competitive against the elite from other countries. With their foreign counterparts outperforming them in university, and then getting the lion’s share of the few “good” jobs in the market, the locals feel outclassed. This is especially true in the financial services sector, where one graduate said he was the only local in his batch of new employees.
Some face the challenge head-on by taking on further studies, jobs that are “beneath them” or seeking opportunities overseas. Some are in denial.
But I reckon most of those who are “happily unemployed” have simply grown tired of the vicious circle. Resentment has given way to desperation, and desperation to indifference. If we are not careful, their indifference could lead to permanent disengagement. We could be in the midst of producing generations of youth afflicted with a “failure to launch”, that is, unable to be independent and self-reliant.
If we listen, the voice we hear is perhaps a cry for help. And it is our responsibility to respond and take concrete steps to show that we care. It is not too late, as Hong Kong people are blessed with a resilient, can-do spirit. Given our colonial history, we are ready to embrace diversity, and our “refugee heritage” makes us fearless. If every stakeholder in our community takes an active role in walking hand in hand with the Class of 2020 to find jobs and develop long-term employability, there is hope.
Louisa Wong is executive chairman of Global Sage and has spent the last 30 years of her career advising CEOs of global institutions on leadership and talent development
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This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (www.scmp.com), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.
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