Hong Kong’s Policy Address 2020 to promote youth jobs is not a panacea but it’s a good start

In her 2020 policy address, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced the start of a new youth employment scheme that encourages companies to recruit local graduates to work in the Greater Bay Area (GBA), a leading hotbed of innovation and technology.

Some critics have argued that the initiative fails to tackle the gaping social divides that occupied our public headlines in the last 18 months. Such criticism has missed the mark. Lam’s initiative extended an olive branch to a beleaguered community that could segue into a more open and honest dialogue down the line — no matter the odds. By offering youth a glimpse of real hope, it opens the door to new possibilities especially as our economy pivots to adopting technology on a larger scale.

The pre-pandemic world once promised predictable rewards to the younger generation — work hard and follow your predecessor’s career footprint. The surfeit of disruptions — sustained decline in retail sales and inbound tourism figures just to name a few — means that we are now living in an open-ended reality that has yet to be fully unveiled. Youth unemployment rate has now reached an all-time high of over 12% since September this year. Gone are the days when there is a single career blueprint to follow. How we respond to the ravages of this year will ripple into the years ahead is the only certainty writ large.

Perhaps eliminating the friction to travel will also fortify the legitimacy to live and work in GBA permanently? For one, housing price is far more affordable in most parts of China than in Hong Kong. The scheme might fashion a fresh pattern of living and working interchangeably on both sides of the border.

In the United states, the Great Depression of the 1930’s inspired structural changes to government policy from a free-for-all financial system to increased government oversight. Each era of disruption warrants a customized response. There is no quick fix to economic myopia.

To keep our economic engine running, we need buy-ins from young people starting with Lam’s plan to foster Hong Kong-GBA integration, while they also need new opportunities beyond what Hong Kong can offer. For those ambitious young people who set foot inside the sprawling GBA, there are careers for daring entrepreneurs and innovators. For example, Shenzhen was home to 25 of the GBA’s 43 unicorns in 2019, while half of all patents filed in China are from Shenzhen. As our new economic reality begins to take shape, old businesses must also adapt to digital demands. There is a strong business case for local graduates majoring in STEM, data science and analytics, and artificial intelligence.

New talent flow within neighboring cities will stimulate imaginative capabilities of young people free from priori social norms. Perhaps eliminating the friction to travel will also fortify the legitimacy to live and work in GBA permanently? For one, housing price is far more affordable in most parts of China than in Hong Kong. The scheme might fashion a fresh pattern of living and working interchangeably on both sides of the border.

The sweeping rupture of the pandemic has galvanized us to rethink our past economic dependency. The end of Dragon Air, coupled with massive layoffs, is not a one-off cosmic event. Sadly, it is the current state of affairs that is very likely to be repeated in this economic cycle. Supply chain shocks, business closures, and a pullback in consumption may well persist. As the unemployment rate climbs to a historic high, traditional opportunities in the service industry will disappear. Bailing out industries, which were designed for a different age, creates a mismatch to today’s digital reality that is bearing down on us.

If there were any residual doubts about the necessity of digital transformation to business viability, this crisis has silenced them. Indeed, the digital mandate is nothing new. The enforced shutdown of businesses and activities has brought this into sharper focus.

Indeed, Lam’s initiative aims to encourage young people to create their own jobs. The Home Affairs Bureau plans to subsidize and implement new entrepreneurship projects with investments of about $100 million to support nearly 200 start-ups for Hong Kong’s budding entrepreneurs in GBA.

This could be a big leap forward for our generation. If there were any residual doubts about the necessity of digital transformation to business viability, this crisis has silenced them. Indeed, the digital mandate is nothing new. The enforced shutdown of businesses and activities has brought this into sharper focus.

A crisis often breeds creativity. Innovative ideas put into practice can propel breakout success. For example, many organizations are now experimenting with digital platforms to keep themselves afloat. Conferences have switched to contactless webinars. The fitness industry has shifted to virtual classes on streaming devices. Restaurants and fast-food chains have rolled out QR codes to take orders. While some businesses might revert to their traditional models, many others will opt for a fully digital or, at the minimum, a hybrid approach.

Our future will no longer be lumbered by institutional monopolies but characterized by thriving entrepreneurial identities. The younger generation was born with a borderless digital citizenship, sharing the same DNA in their zealous dependency on digital tools. Partnering with China’s most innovative region will inspire these young entrepreneurs to build a new and more inclusive digital economy they can call their own.

Lam’s plan is not a panacea. But it sows the first seeds to ensure our long-term economic longevity. Much like during the era of the Industrial Revolution, it would take decades before society understood how impactful certain inventions would become. The impact of any policy to fix a battered economy can only be judged in hindsight. We must learn through trial and error about how to stitch and glue our community back together. Airbrushing the youth out of the discussion of Hong Kong’s future because they are different is wrongheaded. No policy can singly remedy our generational discord.

Yet when a government policy is adopted by a critical mass of people, a new age of long-term thinking and benefits can arise from this synergy. It also provides uncharted avenues for young people to amplify their voices in a world that was seemingly indifferent to their needs. They are now in charge of forging their own chosen paths to reshape Hong Kong’s future.

The schemes could mark the beginning of a seismic paradigm shift. Investing in job creation opportunities in GBA could breathe new life into our hopes of restoring harmony with our mainland neighbors. In making sense of current affairs, we must resist partisan rhetoric and dive into the deep end of technology and innovation that is politically neutral.

Hong Kong is at a pivotal moment in its short history. There are multiple forces emerging into a movement that might liberate us from the straitjacket of the past. Crisis is the ideal time to double down on digital transformation with the aid of a ready-to-deploy young workforce. Rather than putting our future on hold, it is now time to go all in.

(An abridged version of this article first appeared in the South China Morning Post)

Head of legal with an MBA@MIT. Exploring topics on education, data privacy, tech, entrepreneurship and PE/VC landscape.