No one disputes the rather stark figures we are confronted with. In 2021, the number of births in Hong Kong fell below 40,000 for the first time in more than 50 years. By 2033, 30% of the population of Hong Kong will be over 65.
We know the reasons why: people are putting off starting families while better health and livelihoods extend lives. We also know that the trend is not unique to this city but applies to many other economies around the world. There are many studies, analyses and even governmental policy documents that expand on these themes, the reasons for this imbalance in demographics, the burden placed on the sandwich generation as a result, and what could or should be done as a counterbalance to help cities and countries grow economically and socially.
We also know that strong intergenerational relationships were fairly common in the past, especially within families. However, as societies have become wealthier – and people busier – the elderly are seen increasingly as a burden to be separated from normal life and sent to live in care homes. The interconnectedness that came of having aged parents living with us, imparting wisdom and experience, is no longer prevalent and there are fewer opportunities for the different generations to learn from one another. One sad ramification of these changes is the way in which we now tend to stereotype the elderly and even in some ways contribute to their social isolation, resulting in less well-integrated lives, across all the generations.
We now tend to stereotype the elderly, and even contribute to their social isolation.
HKFYG as a youth service organization believes that rebuilding intergenerational connectedness is the way forward. We have seen this especially during the challenges of the pandemic. Volunteering to help or just reaching out through visits and calls has made a difference, first in how we view the elderly, but second in how we see the gap between generations being bridged. However, to meet the challenges more fully, we also need to delve into areas that potentially have long-lasting sustainability and a greater impact on the lives of the elderly. Perhaps nowhere is this more obvious than in technology, digitalization and entrepreneurship. For example, the Federation’s “Digital SAY” (Seniors and Youth) initiative encouraged young people to form caring teams, visit the elderly people at home or at community centres and train them in digital technology. As a result, the physical health and cognitive abilities of the elderly improved and they were able to access information and entertainment while building social networks and friendships.
Thanks to HKFYG youth entrepreneurship programmes there are several examples of startups supporting the elderly. The Longevity Design House uses recycled materials to make elderly-friendly accommodation, supported by Youth Business Hong Kong.1 Another success is Eldpathy, a social enterprise that focuses on nurturing understanding of the mental and physical needs of the elderly while directly involving seniors in developing training and educational programmes.2
Young entrepreneurs are also focusing on businesses that help the elderly. For example, a young graduate from Hong Kong Polytechnic University has been recognized for his novel elderly healthcare solutions, including a magic “pillbox” which can remind people to take their medications regularly and on time.3
Plenty of room for young people to take a lead in building intergenerational connectedness.
Similarly, in Vietnam4, a social enterprise was created to improve the physical and mental health of the elderly by linking them to exercise, medical advice and social services as well as connecting them with new friends. During the pandemic, these services have grown exponentially and are now seen as contributing to long term connectedness with the elderly community.
Singapore also gives government support to the “silver market.” The low birth rate and pace of ageing in the city-state mean that by 2030 there will only be 2.1 working age people for each citizen aged 65 and above. One example of a startup receiving government backing is GlydeSafe, an intuitive walking aid for the elderly. First tested in hospitals, then moved into the community, there are now plans for further expansion.5
Services have grown exponentially and are now seen as contributing to long term connectedness with the elderly community.
These few examples are taken from a vast array of specialized innovative projects that target the elderly. They indicate that there is plenty of room for young people to take a lead in building intergenerational connectedness so that it goes beyond simply looking after one’s grandparents to considering their needs and caring about them.
As a youth-oriented organization, HKFYG needs to be in a position where it advocates addressing the needs of the elderly through business and technology initiatives launched by young people. Then it can encourage young entrepreneurs to find their place in a world that actively creates solutions to practical needs.
As Hong Kong turns grey – like other Asian countries and the rest of the world – finding innovative, creative and positive ways for young people to make a difference will help to build social cohesion and destigmatize views on the elderly. Such intergenerational connectedness has a legitimate place in all our societies and economies.