(This essay was published in South China Morning Post on 24 December 2014.)

Many reports describe the Occupy Movement as a conflict between two generations: an older generation that is more materialistic and willing to compromise and a younger generation that is more idealistic and confrontational.

This conflict influenced by both life cycle differences and secular trend differences.

The life-cycle difference is summed up by the idea that young and old differ because the young have yet to live through the life experiences of their parents or grandparents.

But this is not how Chester Tsang, a 21-year-old part-time student, who participated in the Occupy Movement, sees it: “It isn’t only about fighting for democracy, we have different social needs. My generation, we care about social justice. My mother’s generation cared about a roof over their heads. My grandmother’s generation, they just wanted warm food on their table.”

This second kind of generational difference is the result of economic growth. Secular economic trends drive each generation to want different things and to behave differently.

The phenomenal economic growth of the past two centuries has increased the amount of time and money each person now possesses. From the years 0 to 1850, GDP per capita rose only slightly from US$467 to US$666. By the year 2000, it had shot past US$10,000.

The modern era has also brought better health so people live longer. Life expectancy in Hong Kong was 63.2 in 1960 and 83.3 in 2010, and is expected to keep rising. Other societies, such as the U.S., Mainland China and Taiwan, have similarly seen big leaps in life expectancy (see Table).

The longer life span means people can now spend less time at paid work and more time in leisure activities. Since all leisure activities require work effort, including meditation, so it is appropriate to view them as voluntary work without pay, whose reward is psychic income. Such voluntary work time has increased substantially for those born between 1960 and 2010, largely due to increases in life expectancy.

In Hong Kong, the share of time available for voluntary work has risen from 29% for the generation born in 1960 to 50% for those born in 1985. Singapore, Taiwan, Mainland China, and to a lesser degree the U.S. have also seen increases.

The average number of years in schooling has also increased for 15-24 year olds, which means the younger generations in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore have more education, greater life expectancy, greater economic prosperity and far more discretionary time than their parent’s generation. This has created opportunities for them to explore different aspirations for which self-realization becomes the critical issue.

However, this quest is being confounded by rising life expectancy. Around a third of the population will be over age 65 in less than a decade, enough to prevent entry into the best jobs if elderly professionals and executives choose to stay at work.

This will have economic and political consequences, since younger workers are a major source of new ideas and they are growing frustrated, especially over rising inequality. The young are often too eager to view rising inequality as the product of social injustices, although it is itself largely a by-product of rapid economic growth.

A similar situation may soon appear in Mainland China as life expectancies continue to rise, while economic growth adjusts to a slower trajectory. The younger generation will also be searching for self-realization as their share of available discretionary time for voluntary work rises further.

The search for meaning in life, for self-identity and self-esteem is a time-intensive activity that the younger generation in Hong Kong can now afford. Their parents can only afford to do so in their retirement thanks to an unexpectedly long life.

Table: Hours Worked, Schooling, Life Expectancy, and Share of Time Available for Voluntary Work

  Year HK Taiwan Singapore MainlandChina U.S.
Paid work hours per year 1960 2613 2772 2472 2000* 1863
1985 2328 2344 2344 2050* 1742
2010 2344 2174 2287 2100* 1695
Years of schooling of 15-24 year olds 1960 6.8 4.4 5.7 5.0 10.2
1985 11.8 10.6 8.4 7.4 11.8
2010 13.5 13.0 12.7 9.2 12.0
Life expectancy at birth 1960 63.2 65.3 60.2 44.6 68.6
1985 75.7 73.5 72.9 67.7 74.3
2010 83.3 79.6 82.2 75.2 78.9
Lifetime share of total available discretionary time for voluntary work 1960 0.29 0.28 0.29 0.12 0.55
1985 0.50 0.48 0.47 0.49 0.62
2010 0.56 0.57 0.56 0.54 0.66

Note: Asterisked figures are guesstimates.

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