(This essay was published in Hong Kong Economic Journal on 10 December 2014.)


Political activism among students and youths has been interpreted as a conflict between two generations. It is claimed that the older generation is primarily interested in economic comforts, while the younger generation is more concerned with democratic ideals and social justice. I shall call this the radical democratic narrative.


This narrative implies, and perhaps wishes, to find starkly different attitudes between the two generations, since the old must eventually pass and the future belongs to the young. Generational conflict is an old idea and tends to surface whenever youths rebel. It is an optimistic message proclaiming the eventual triumph of the young and the fulfillment of radical democratic hopes. But for this narrative to be correct, the activists must stick with their convictions from youth to old age.


Media reports and research surveys showing different political attitudes between the two generations do not tell us whether the attitudes of young people will change over time. The findings are also difficult to interpret because we still do not have a good theory or hypothesis to explain why attitudes are different across generations and to predict if the differences will persist into the future or converge over time.


Without a theory, it is difficult to predict the future attitudes and behavior of today’s young activists. George Bernard Shaw advanced a hypothesis when he delivered a lecture at the University of Hong Kong in 1933: “If you don’t begin to be a revolutionist at the age of twenty then at fifty you will be an impossible old fossil. If you are a red revolutionary at the age of twenty you have some chance of being up to date when you are forty.”


Shaw’s hypothesis essentially claims that idealism and radicalism is a passing thing and fades as one matures. If this is correct, then what we have seen recently on Hong Kong’s streets will become the stuff of future memories – another passing thing. Winston Churchill even advanced a reason for it with the observation, “anyone who was not a liberal at 20 years of age had no heart, while anyone who was still a liberal at 40 had no head.”


Churchill’s reasoning has a long line of distinguished predecessors, including French novelist Victor Hugo, King Oscar II of Sweden, French politician and historian François Guizot, French politician Georges Clemenceau, and British politician Benjamin Disraeli. Anselme Batbie, a prominent French jurist and academic, is probably is the first to have so reasoned in 1875. If the Churchill reasoning is correct, then the radical democratic narrative is false.


My point is simple. One cannot predict the future from merely documenting differences in the attitudes of the younger and older generations. We need a proven theory of why people have different attitudes and whether these might converge with age and time. The wisdom of a long line of distinguished men in history does not constitute a proven theory, but then the claims that the attitudes of the two generations are different may also be exaggerated.


It is a mistake to believe that the older generation in Hong Kong had no idealism in its youthful days. There were some who took to the streets in the 1960s and the 1970s, even if they were for different causes. Comparing two generations at a point in time and different points of their life cycle provides a static snapshot that can be misleading. What is needed is a dynamic movie shot following the same generation over time. Until we have that, the radical democratic narrative is unconvincing as it has neither the right facts nor a proven theory in support of it, but plenty of contrary wisdoms to contradict it.


The counter narrative advanced by the establishment is that political activism is the consequence of youth’s downward economic mobility (or lack of upward economic mobility). This has been identified as an emerging recent phenomenon in Hong Kong. The reasoning is straightforward: youth frustration with the lack of economic mobility spills over into political protest. The proposed policy remedy is a youth policy to alleviate downward economic mobility. The government has now tasked the Poverty Commission to tackle this problem.


I find the establishment narrative also seriously unconvincing.


Youth downward economic mobility is merely a description of recent empirical statistics and experience. It is part of a general phenomenon of rising poverty and inequality that have been on going in Hong Kong and most other industrialized nations for the past 30 to 40 years. Just exactly how much downward mobility there is in Hong Kong has not even been properly measured.


Real median household income has been stagnant since the 1990s, even though real GDP per worker has continued to rise at about 3.8% a year. The same phenomenon has been found in the U.S., where real GDP per worker has also continued to rise at about 3.1% a year, while real median household incomes have been stagnant since the 1970s (see Figures 1 & 2).

There was a 20-year gap between the U.S. and Hong Kong in this regard because of China’s opening. Back during the global oil crisis of 1973-75, the Hong Kong government was urged by the community to adopt an industrial diversification strategy. It was adopted but never implemented, after China’s opening ushered in a new era of economic prosperity that lasted until the onset of the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s.


Since then, incomes among the working population have seen very little real growth except among the top 30% of the income distribution.  Low- and middle-income individuals have fallen behind, prompting worries of slowing economic growth, rising poverty, growing inequality, and sinking middle class incomes. But this is almost a universal problem in all the rich countries. Youth downward economic mobility is only one of the manifestations of this general problem.


Poverty and inequality is of course a huge problem that should be addressed, but there will be no quick solutions. It is not obvious to me that our government has recognized the full complexity of this problem. I do not believe the problem has even been sufficiently well researched because of its multiple facets. There are at least seven areas of concern:


First, there is the problem with the structure of our industries in a service economy, especially in a world where technological progress in the 21st century is fundamentally different from fifty years ago. Back then, technology made large numbers of workers wealthy and created the middle class. Today, it brings wealth to the few and is sinking the middle class that is the bedrock of workable democratic political institutions.


Second, when industrial change happens, so must change in land usage and property redevelopment. But this did not happen when Hong Kong’s industries moved from manufacturing into services and now it is holding back economic development and rejuvenation. The result is higher property prices that benefit landlords and worsen inequality, a situation made worse by a global environment of prolonged low interest rates.


Third, our education system is not producing the right mix of graduates both in the universities and in the schools.


Fourth, rapidly ageing demographic trends point to almost zero-growth in the working age population from hence onwards until the end of the 21st century, so that growth rates in real GDP per capita will slip by at least 0.5% even if we assume the growth rate of real GDP per worker remains unchanged. These two factors require a total revision of our human capital investment approach, including immigration policy.


Fifth, the proportion of single parent families has been rising rapidly, especially among low-income families, due to very high divorce rates. This will probably have long-term detrimental effects on the development of many of our youths.


Sixth, early childhood policy intervention measures to help the underprivileged, especially aged below six, are seriously lagging behind and are inadequately addressed by government and community efforts.


Seventh, the six preceding factors are some of the most important factors affecting poverty, inequality and mobility, but they cannot be addressed unless our political and governance processes regain effectiveness and legitimacy. This means reforming the present method of how the Chief Executive and the legislators are elected, and how the executive and legislative branches of government can work together again.


Although Hong Kong has a problem with rising poverty, growing inequality and a sinking middle class, it is general dissatisfaction with the effectiveness of government and the political process that is fuelling political activism. Compared with other industrialized countries, Hong Kong is doing quite well economically. The unemployment rate has been in the low single digits for a long time, whereas those elsewhere are at least one or two times higher.


I believe the relationship between political activism and youth downward mobility is not direct. The two can of course be tied together in many complex ways and there will be many different opinions on how this can be done. History shows political activists have seldom come from the low-income classes, but rather from the frustrated idealism and ambition of better-to-do members of society.


This sentiment was best expressed during the French Revolution when one of the leaders of the Third Estate asked: “What is the Third Estate? Everything. What has it been hitherto in our form of government? Nothing. What does it want? To become something.” What Hong Kong urgently needs to address is not economic upward mobility, but political upward mobility so that we can get on with the normal business of governing and dealing with slower economic growth, rising poverty, growing inequality, sinking middle class incomes, high property prices, and many other social and economic challenges.


Is there a generation conflict? Maybe, but it is most likely exaggerated. Generation conflict is an idea more colorful than insightful. Is youth downward economic mobility causing political radicalization? Maybe, but the lack of political upward mobility is more to the point. Sadly, Hong Kong’s economic and social contradictions are being held hostage to political impasse and turned into instruments for mobilizing and recruiting supporters to political causes.

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