Masters of the future
2014-05-23, Ming Yeung

Hong Kong youths born in the post-90s and the older generation are locked in debate over their role and contributions to society. Are youths a real asset in today’s wired ‘Golden Age’, or just an anti-social, rebellious group? Ming Yeung examines the arguments presented.

Many of Hong Kong’s post-90s generation see themselves as the generation that will save the world — clean up the mess previous generations have left behind. Much of the “rest of the world”, on the other hand, sees them as troublemakers.

“I think that we, post-90s youths, are divided into two extremes, like polar opposites. Some will use any means to achieve their goals. Some are mindless brats, especially those from the late 90s. I have no idea how they’re going to live their lives,” said Stephen Tai, with youthful conviction. He’s a second-year student in hotel management at Hong Kong Polytechnic University (HKPU).

“It’s unfair to label us in negative terms, (as troublemakers),” he said, upon further reflection. “Every generation has good and bad people. Going through tough times doesn’t necessarily make you a better person,” Tai added.

Professor Chung Kim-wah, director of the Centre for Social Policy Studies at HKPU, explained that each generation creates its own “vision of the future”, stamped by the time, place and the common experiences where they grew up. That cycle, he added, is spinning much more quickly now than it did over generations that have passed.

“The span of each age cohort (a group sharing similar social backgrounds according to age and social values) is shorter now than it was,” Chung said. “The generational change used to take 15 to 20 years. Now it’s around 10 years.”


Living in a wired world

Post-90s kids were born amid the Internet explosion, the latest and potentially scariest “Big Bang” in the evolution of the human condition. They have grown up in a fast-changing climate where “Big Brother” is not a fictional figure and the twisting kaleidoscope of virtual reality soon becomes reality.

They live in a wired world, appearing in groups, though the tell tale smartphones reveal them in splendid isolation, tapping text messages to absent friends and checking their “likes” on Facebook.

Tai’s schoolmate, Yan Kan, born in 1994, confessed that the secret life of young people is total immersion in an interactive, 24/7, real time, virtual environment of intense social contact with “friends” some of whom they probably never actually met.

“I hate to admit this, but online tools are more convenient for communicating with people. All our lives are related to social media, which we can’t possibly live without,” Kan said with a wry laugh.

“I fear the day that technology will surpass our human interaction,” declared Albert Einstein decades ago. “Then, we will have a generation of idiots,” he concluded.

Perception, however, is an evolving faculty and as the art of music has changed over time, Kan reckoned that the perceptions of technology-savvy young people are different from those of previous generations, who did not grow up in a wired world.

A study commissioned by the HKSAR government’s Central Policy Unit (CPU) in 2011, “A Study on Understanding Our Young Generation”, noted “the emerging worldwide trend of young people drawing back from the stress of material pursuit and setting new goals, of freedom, autonomy, and life satisfaction”. “The growth of the worldwide web and new media has bestowed a different set of values on young people and how they engage with society,” it said.

That does little thus far to explain why post-90s kids are viewed as troublemakers among some conservative elders.

Responding to that question, Chung noted that an affluent society fosters greater idealism. But the idealistic vision of the present, younger generation has collided with the hard reality of “diminishing returns”.

He said economic policies funnel opportunity to those who already have “more than their share”. Property values, he said, have sailed out of sight and beyond the reach of most young people, leaving them with faint hope of ever owning their own homes in the city where they grew up. They now have to compete in the global employment market where a foreigner may claim the position for which they have studied and carefully groomed themselves. They feel on their own and, according to the evidence, ready to fight.

Another CPU study on the social attitudes of Hong Kong’s young was done in 2010 in the wake of some youth protests that turned ugly in 2009. The protests were aimed at the construction of the Hong Kong-Guangzhou express rail link. The study sought to create some clarity on the influences making the city’s young people so cranky and combative.

The conclusions revealed what already was apparent to many. Young people saw the future being taken away by a powerful oligarchy with its stranglehold on nearly every facet of day-to-day living. The study revealed far greater disillusionment among post-90s youths than among the earlier generation born in the 70s.

A 2013 study by the local think tank, Hong Kong Ideas Centre (HKIC), revealed that the post-90s are more contentious, more resistant to authority, more self-determined, and are courageous enough to challenge the “centers of power”. Today’s youths believe that the government ignores the voice of the people to serve the narrow interests of the rich. The post-90s generation has thus adopted a “radical” approach, applying pressure, demanding that the government change its policies.

Tai also noted an attitude of defeatism among some of his peers, leading them to lay back and take things a bit “too easy”, too willing to cash in on the social safety net. Tai, on the other hand, said he accepted the challenge to his generation. He believed he was lucky to have been born into this “Golden Age”.


Modern transformation

Previous generations, he noted, have already done the heavy lifting, transforming Hong Kong into a modern, international economic power center.

The 2010 CPU study noted that young people blame the administration’s commitment to a narrow perspective fostering finance and investment.

“In my opinion, there are fewer opportunities nowadays, because the market is monopolized and dominated by a few industries. Government policies have suffocated many creative minds and hence there is less room to pursue our dreams when job availability has become so restricted,” Tai commented.

Kan agreed, adding that on top of the narrow job market, the demands for higher education are getting steeper and steeper to qualify for what passes as a “decent” job. “We need to fight harder to climb up the ladder. We need to be aware of new government policies that may affect us greatly,” she said.

The CPU study, however, found real hope for resolving feelings of disenfranchisement among youths. The negative orientation among young people toward the government is not fixed, the study concluded, but is significantly influenced by events in the political arena triggered by a small group of political activists.

“People of my age generally do not understand that we have come a long way to acquire something like the right to vote. When they assume these rights have been there forever, they lose motivation to work for the better,” Tai stressed.

Tai said he felt confident that Hong Kong will come through these times of uncertainty and that the post-90s generation will get the education and acquire the vision and the will to make a difference.

“We need to speak up for what we want, not just sit there and do nothing. Only through active discussion can we really change the status quo,” said the 21-year-old Tai who has been involved in public protests several times. “People have to think seriously about what is right and wrong. One should not lash out for the sake of lashing out. When things have exceeded what is acceptable, we must act,” he said.

Young people are suspicious of political parties and professionals representing the functional constituencies and what they claim to represent. Post-90s youths resist following “political stars”, preferring “collective action” and protest, the HKIC study showed.

“I’m confused about where the political parties stand. They used to be consistent but now they keep changing positions,” Tai said.

While many see the young generation as “anti-social” and “rebellious”, the 2011 CPU study revealed that young people feel deep concern about their hometown, Hong Kong. In general, they acknowledge themselves as ethnic Chinese and feel close to the motherland. They also have an emotional tie to the local culture and want to be able to take advantage of Hong Kong’s advantages to achieve self-sufficiency and autonomy for themselves.

The 2010 CPU study revealed that although young people are more critical of the government, they are more positive and optimistic when evaluating their own situation in general.

“Instead of assuming that young people are motivated by ‘negative’ sentiments, we must accept the fact that many of the young people critical of the government are prompted by ‘positive’ beliefs about themselves, society and the polity,” it said.

When asked to evaluate their view of Hong Kong’s future, on a scale from 0 to 100, Tai offered a promising “70”. 

He said the younger generation cares about social values and that it will contribute to a better future.

“In the long run, I would like to build my career in Hong Kong. Even if I were to go overseas to work or travel, I would be away for just a few years,” said Tai, who wanted to accumulate enough capital to start a retail shop. “Hong Kong has nurtured me and given me so much. I won’t leave it behind simply because I think Hong Kong has gotten worse.”

The HKIC survey also showed that some post-90s youths are weary of Hong Kong’s frenetic pace and want to get away and move somewhere else.

Kan is considering moving to Australia to continue her studies later this year. She said she wants to get away from the high-stress environment and the toxic climate of social conflict.

“I see a number of imbalances in Hong Kong. People have become more demanding. Their demands are often against my own beliefs,” said Kan.

“Our fathers and mothers built a wonderful city for us to live in. Our obligation is not only to maintain that but to make it better. If we could fully apply what we’ve learned in school, we could create a better society,” she concluded.

“People from other generations should try to remove their pride and prejudice toward the younger generation and replace it with acceptance and tolerance. Beginning in earnest with the young generation is the best way to make progress. They are the best insurance for the future of Hong Kong,” the 2011 CPU report said.


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