Recent events in Hong Kong have exposed polarizing and partisan viewpoints about our young people. Much of the criticism has portrayed the city's youth as a problem, typecasting them as

naive and idealistic; other critics claim they are simply lazy. Such interpretations demonstrate a lack of understanding and an over-simplification of complex issues which now plague Hong Kong and its youth.

The rigors of Hong Kong's education system are acute, in part due to an overwhelming shortfall of places for qualified students in tertiary institutions and "top" secondary schools. Unsurprisingly, students cite intense pressure in regard to their studies. A survey by the Hong Kong Federation of Youth Groups found that 25 percent of primary and secondary students have high levels of stress and 30 percent "think they are about to go crazy". This should be cause for alarm, but the plain truth is that mental health issues in Hong Kong culture remain a taboo subject and neglected, with inadequate awareness and treatment for young and older people alike. Cultural stigmas around discussing issues of self-esteem, self-confidence and problems at home are also sources of student stress. They can certainly inhibit a student's potential and progress. In these areas, greater awareness of mental health issues is needed, in addition to facilitating empathy and constructive dialogue in schools.

It is estimated that there is only place for 18 percent of the city's teenagers to study at a public tertiary institution, so what is the fate of the remaining 82 percent? Those with the means to study abroad generally opt to take that course, but many others lack the financial means and get left behind. The result is that their potential remains unfulfilled. While sub-degree programs fill some of these gaps, enhanced regulation is needed to survey the quality of these programs and the costs and debts they leave with students.

We have also seen a disconnect in the labor market between employers and potential employees; the majority of Hong Kong post-secondary students pursue business, social science or fine arts as their major of study. As a result, some employers complain they have difficulty hiring young applicants with the skills they need - technical or otherwise. This disconnect explains the current rise of contract/temporary employment. But the knock-on effect is that our youth are left lamenting the difficulty in finding a stable and permanent job that provides adequate training and most importantly, the potential for growth and a real career. Furthermore, the average salary of a new graduate has remained stagnant at HK$10,000 to HK$13,000. Bearing in mind it was already HK$13,000 in 1993 and taking inflation into consideration, this actually represents a salary reduction. Considering the city's exorbitant housing prices, it is easy to understand why many fresh university graduates become despondent over their prospect of ever having a home of their own.

To invest in the youth means to invest in the city's future. The first step would be to reignite their hope for a brighter future, starting with affording more attractive job prospects. Presently only 20 percent of our high school students go on to university, compared with 60 percent in South Korea and 54 percent in Australia. With progress toward a more advanced economy, it is essential that far more young professionals are trained in engineering, technology and design to meet the needs of the job market. This would require a vigorous promotion drive for such fields, which at present only a minority of post-secondary students select as their majors, plus opening more vocational schools and technical centers to support those choosing to work in these fields. Schools should also foster a culture of open dialogue and provide safe spaces where students can feel comfortable in discussing pressures and stresses related to studies and other adolescent problems.

Looking toward Hong Kong's future, if developments are properly orchestrated there should be fantastic potential and exciting opportunities for the youth. We have seen the rise of high-tech industries and entrepreneurship, a revival of the arts industry, and space for modern manufacturing and agriculture industries to grow. But we must ensure we are investing in and believe in the youth, and give them the space to create, innovate and succeed.

(HK Edition 02/29/2016 page10)

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