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The good, the bad and the elderly

Hong Kong, 16 May 2024: “I get up every day and don’t let the old man in.” Defiant words about ageing from Clint Eastwood as he prepares to turn 94 while working on his latest movie. Stubborn and stoic, this is one of Hollywood’s archetypal Western heroes refusing to contemplate that final ride into the sunset. Age is just a number. Life is for living.

Many Hongkongers feel the same as our city undergoes a profound demographic shift. The proportion of residents aged 65 and above has risen from 13% to 20% in just 10 years. We top the world in average life expectancy, now 85.83 years. By 2046, more than one in three citizens here will be classed as elderly. This brings challenges, of course, but also benefits. In some instances, it means – shall we say – a fistful of dollars.

Why? Compared with past generations, our seniors are now wealthier, healthier, better educated and more socially active. “Their multifarious needs have generated new business opportunities,” notes Trade Development Council deputy director of research Louis Chan. Hong Kong ranks fourth – behind Singapore, Japan and Australia – in the Ageing Asia Silver Economy Index as residents splash out not only on healthcare but also investment, tourism, wellness and anti-ageing products. The region’s ageing market value is estimated to reach US$4.56 trillion by 2025, an increase of 43% in five years.

Traditional assisted-ageing products such as wheelchairs, hearing aids and medical beds remain in high demand but are being supplemented by modern “gerontech” devices designed to improve motor and cognitive functions. Our government now has a silver economy advisory panel to help with the development of products and services. “The growing elderly population is emerging as a main consumer group,” agrees our leader John Lee. There is talk of tax rebates to help businesses invest in the market.

Chinese Manufacturers’ Association of Hong Kong executive vice-president Ma Kai-yum believes private sector enterprise “may help alleviate the public finances burden caused by an ageing population”. It is no coincidence that our city recently hosted the Gerontech and Innovation Expo, featuring 200 global exhibitors anxious to meet the needs of senior residents.

Good news, then? For some, yes, but in a city with a notoriously wide wealth gap – one exacerbated by the pandemic – it is inevitable that many of our elderly are struggling. Among citizens who serve as the sole caregiver in their family, some 40% are aged over 60 while 17% are 70 or older, according to a new survey by the Hong Kong Family Welfare Society. Senior manager Teresa Cheung estimates more than 260,000 elderly carers are looking after family members alone. The poll shows the overall well-being of households has continued to fall since 2019 and those with carers are hardest hit.

Another survey, released to coincide with Labour Day, focuses on Hong Kong’s infamous subdivided flats, finding that carers (of all ages) in these cramped and dangerous microhomes spend an average of 11 hours on weekdays taking care of family members. “We often refer to paid work while talking about labour, but many people are doing unpaid work,” observes sociology professor Ruby Lai, who helped conduct the poll.

In fairness, it should be pointed out that our government has identified around 950,000 elderly citizens, single-parent households and tenants of subdivided flats as targets for its poverty alleviation programme. As well, officials have come up with a simpler way of calculating this city’s minimum wage – amid opposition from the business sector – that will likely make it slightly higher. What’s more, it will now be reviewed annually rather than every two years.

If this is progress, it is worth cautioning that these measures come as the Labour and Welfare Bureau draws up a new calculation method for measuring poverty levels, arguing that the current formula is inaccurate and – here’s the worrying part – “may lead to possible over-estimation of the poverty situation”. Our old friend Tik Chi-yuen – this city’s only non-establishment lawmaker, who represents the welfare sector – is unimpressed. “The current strategy of targeted poverty alleviation is not targeted, not accurate and not effective,” he insists.

Listeners to our Law & More podcast may recall one of my earlier guests, Victor Apps from the Business and Professionals Federation of Hong Kong, being particularly vocal on the topics of poverty, the elderly and retirement protection. Amid the ongoing debate, his views are well worth revisiting. The latest episode, out this week, is a fascinating chat with Victor Dawes SC, who sheds light on the work of the Hong Kong Bar Association and his role as chairman. Please listen.

In closing, I should mention taxi drivers are fuming that the flag-fall rate is rising by just HK$2 rather than the HK$6 they demanded. Another setback for our ageing community, perhaps, given that more than half this city’s licensed cabbies are over 60. When they calm down, however, the drivers might consider a HK$2 increase to be better than none and even their own leader admits they will earn up to HK$130 more per shift.

Cheer up, cabbies, every cloud has – ahem – a silver lining.

Until next time, everybody!

Colin Cohen
Senior Partner
Boase Cohen & Collins

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