(This essay was published in the South China Morning Post on 30 January 2019.)
A stable nourishing family is an important bedrock for a child’s future achievement in life. Numerous studies have shown how the family environment is key to a young child’s future schooling achievements, earned income, mental health and many other measures. A lot of the focus has been on early childhood. But parental involvement is also critical for teenagers.
Teenagers learn from their parents. The mother’s role is particularly important for human capital development, which is a time-intensive activity. A mother’s education level is a far more significant indicator of future success than a father’s. But fathers have an important role to play in career opportunities, where they often act as role models for their children. This is confirmed in numerous studies on the propensity for children, especially sons, to follow in their fathers’ footsteps in career choice.
In a changing economic world, fathers are also likely to provide better advice on job market opportunities than mothers, as they are usually better networked in the workplace.
Yet many young people lack the opportunities to learn from their parents. According to the 2016 Hong Kong Census of Population, 4.1 per cent of 12- to 18-year-olds did not live with their parents and 18.3 per cent lived in single parent households. Some 17.5 per cent of 12- to 18-year-olds did not live with their fathers, while another 2.1 per cent lived with fathers who had arrived from the Mainland only within the past 10 years and were likely to be less familiar with local career opportunities.
In a globalized world with disruptive technological shocks and shifts in the geographic location of jobs, even teenagers living with parents are having a hard time identifying appropriate career opportunities. Those teenagers that do not live with their fathers are further disadvantaged. Furthermore, they are overwhelmingly from low-income single parent families.
Schools are not normally good sources for career advice. Schoolteachers are typically the most isolated profession in terms of knowledge of market workplace opportunities. Career placement offices are not the solution. What is needed is knowledge of career opportunities that can help teenagers to become aware of careers that fit their aspirations and circumstances. This is not the same as job placements.
This gap in career development advice could be filled by employers and employer associations. For teenagers who are only starting to think about their future and are only beginning to know themselves, internships and job camps, especially during summer time, could give them relevant experiences to learn about their interests and explore different workplaces.
Parents of well-to-do families have long used their market networks to find such opportunities for their children. There is no lack of teenage talent among the less well-to-do and single or no-parent households, but they are far less able to have access to such opportunities.
Indeed, lacking good advice and internship opportunities, many isolated parents and their children often fall into the trap of believing that the best strategy to advance their children’s life chances is to pursue academic studies rather than vocational ones––an approach that fails many teenagers and is not in the interest of employers. A coordinated effort, perhaps with some public leadership participation, in which employers and employer association provided internships and job workshop opportunities for teenagers with interest and talent, would be enormously helpful.
Policies to promote family stability would also help in the long run. There is a lot of evidence in Hong Kong that homeownership plays a central role in promoting marital stability and reducing family separation and divorce.
Two policy measures could help in this area. In the area of divorce settlements and personal bankruptcy, the law and courts should protect the matrimonial home, if there is one, for the sake of the children. If such provisions were present in law, they would act as deterrence to some divorces and a disincentive to creditors when making loans to persons because they would be prevented from going after the matrimonial home.
In the area of public housing policy, one should encourage homeownership rather than rental tenancy so that families will have a greater stake in staying together rather than risk breakup.
Economic prosperity and social upward mobility, in an uncertain and changing globalized world that is driven by new technologies, depend on preparing teenagers with robust cognitive and non-cognitive skills. It also means preparing them to make good career choices. If an increasing number of families are ill-prepared to assume this role and schools are unable to do so, then the business community must take up the challenge. Government should encourage this, and in addition, look into how our laws and public housing policies can reduce family instability and its negative consequences.