Generation 40s – 四十世代

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新世代我行我路

信報財經新聞
忽然文化
2017-08-05

占飛

2008年金融海嘯後,各國大印銀紙,量化寬鬆,固然避免了經濟大蕭條,但貧富懸殊加劇,工作愈來愈不穩定,本來是社會穩定中流砥柱的中產階級愈來愈貧窮,新一代青年上流機會愈來愈渺茫。社會撕裂和對立愈來愈嚴重。這樣的情況可以持續多久?

中產階級是個很籠統的概念,有不同的定義。簡要言之,現時社會大部分財富掌握在1%人口的巨富和大財團手裏。其餘99%的人口,大概有半數以上是中產階級,他們憑專業知識和技能賺取收入,包括白手興家的小企業家。其餘是低技術工人、打散工的窮人,以及靠公援維生的基層。中產階級也可分高中產(upper middle class)及低中產(lower middle class)。前者通常是大學畢業和取得專業資格的人士,例如醫生、律師、建築師、工程師之類。後者則是學歷和專業資格較低,因而收入及不上前者的人士,例如護士、白領、中、低級公務員等等。

大學生不值錢

昔日,能晉身中產階級,代表一生生活安定。他們未必能致富,但職位無憂,有足夠收入買房子、車子、結婚生兒育女、追求有品味的生活方式,看藝術電影、出外旅遊、買精品、當業餘收藏家……最重要的是,保證子女能入讀名校、接受精英教育,長大後如父母般做個專業人士,成為中產階級,不致向下流動,淪為基層草根。

在香港,五十後至七十後的世代,無論出身中產還是基層,都是通過教育晉身中產階級。是以中產階級特別肯花錢培育子女成才,亦特別緊張子女的學業成績。二戰後的教育制度,剪裁成向中產階級的子女傾斜。出身窮家的孩子,只有少數能通過考試晉身高或低中產,大多數只能安安份份地做低技術的基層工作。

1990年後,大學學位大量增加,表面上增加了青年向上流動的機會。殊不知大學畢業生的「價值」亦遵從供求定律。大學畢業生愈多愈不值錢,要找份高薪、穩定、有前途的工作愈來愈困難,入職工資卻十多年來停滯不前,甚至下跌。

追尋興趣為先

大學畢業再無任何保證了,怎能怪年輕一輩「重利輕義」,憂心忡忡,先是不滿,終至憤慨呢?是以無論出身哪個階級,凡是不求聞達、只求無災無難過一生的孩子,一旦公開試考得優異成績,便蜂擁去讀醫,因只有學醫可以保證有份穩定的工作和收入也! 這不等於說:凡醫學生都胸無大志。懷抱濟世理想的醫學生還是有的,卻少之又少,且多是家境較豐裕,不急於賺錢供養父母的一群!在香港,半個世紀前已經如此,絕非於今為烈。

另一方面,中產階級父母教育水平較高,思想較開明,亦較尊重子女的意願,尤其是本身已累積足夠財富,毋須子女反哺者,多能容許/支持子女選擇專業或職業時以興趣和理想先行,而毋須顧慮金錢或「前途」,反正在這個世代,走大眾心目中的陽關大道,未必是最聰明的選擇,因競爭對手多,本事不足,就算醫科畢業,也未必一定「前途似錦」。行少人問津的羊腸小徑,亦可以有自己的一片晴朗藍天。

有大才或大志者,往往不願跟大隊,我走我路。周梁淑怡當年是名校聖保羅男女小學和中學的畢業生,畢業於香港大學。那是港大畢業生還是「天子門生」的時代,厚職任擇。她卻偏偏入無綫電視工作,由低做起。結果,她30歲已出任製作經理,31歲已升為助理總經理。同是港大畢業的黃霑,教了2年書後,24歲投身廣告界,迅即升為副經理,30歲不到已做到創作總監。35歲創業,有自己的廣告公司,且業績驕人。試問,兩人若去讀醫,能夠年紀輕輕就有同樣的成就嗎?

當然,今時不同往日,七十年代香港經濟騰飛,要在各新興行業冒出頭來,機會多的是。是以當年的年輕人大多不求安穩,亦最不屑做公務員或教師一類「安穩」工作,寧願投身江湖闖一番事業,縱使到頭來一事無成,也好過無風無浪度半生。

年輕人本性喜浪漫、愛冒險。今之年輕人也許亦如是,故而既有人競相求安穩,也有人像羅拔佛洛斯(Robert Frost)詩中所說的take the road less travelled by。

撰文:占飛

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Penniless retirees and teen zombies: how hot tech has China and the world hurtling into a dark age

CommentInsight & Opinion
2017-07-21
Andy Xie says the current tech revolution is feeding off the worst traits of human nature while making unscrupulous people very rich, which is bad news for the future of humanity

While I was giving a talk to a bored and sleepy audience one afternoon last month, they suddenly rose from their lethargy, clapping and cheering ecstatically. It wasn’t me. They were worshipping a gigantic picture projection on the screen behind me. It was the chart of cryptocurrency prices going vertical. The audience looked mostly like retirees from central China. Many of them were probably red guards during the Cultural Revolution and cheered at Chairman Mao with the same enthusiasm. Now cryptocurrencies are their gods.

Bitcoin has gone crazy. Ethereum has done better. There are over 700 cryptocurrencies. Whenever you see one taking off, you can be sure that a crowd like this, somewhere in China, is cheering like that.

The middlemen in this market are like the “wolf of Wall Street” on steroids, coming up with more fantastical stories by the day. If the CIA were looking for the perfect weapon to bring down China, this is it. Electronic currencies have put Las ­Vegas and Macau at the fingertips of all Chinese retirees. Sooner or later, most will lose their pension money. The resulting chaos will pose a critical threat to social stability.

And, talking about weapons against China, ­online gaming is even more powerful, being targeted at youth. Electronic currencies promise to make Chinese retirees mad, but ­online gaming is turning Chinese boys into zombies. A century and a half ago, the Chinese government fought the British to keep opium out. In the 21st century, China is happily doing it to itself. China’s successes have got many countries worried about their ­future. It seems those worries may be overblown.

Lately, its official media waded into blaming one game for its negative social impact. But why this one, and why now? Online gaming has been a battle between mothers and sons in China for a decade. Would an occasional media intervention like this make a difference? Remember a similar episode about online searches? In China, the essence of searches is selling fake information. When someone died for believing in fake medical information, there was a media uproar. Has anything meaningful changed?

In the West, tech isn’t so innocent either. The EU just fined ­Google billions of dollars for doing a little “evil”. Social media sites like Facebook hire psychologists to ­design tricks to keep users hooked. E-commerce providers find new ways to make people buy things they don’t need and can’t afford. In China, e-commerce is always about fake goods. The West is catching up.

Tech dominates media. There are sensational stories on a daily basis about new things to come. Silicon Valley has become more glamorous than either Hollywood or Wall Street. Geeky acronyms and terms like AI, AR, blockchain and big data crawl into daily conversations, like we are supposed to know. Even the Chinese government’s annual work report sounds like a speech by some guru at a venture capital conference. But, why do we still have ­boring lives? Worse, the global economy has been stagnating through this tech boom.

In the developed economies, people’s economic well-being is at a decades’ low. The angst has led to populist political upheavals in the US and Europe. Even emerging economies are not seeing significant growth from more tech. After so much attention to – and so much money invested in – the tech boom, where’s the beef?

The world has experienced tech crazes many times before. Each one was a financial bubble, but also ­produced a growth boom. Even the last IT bubble in the late 1990s led to prosperity for a few years. And its impact was lasting: multinational companies became truly global with integrated global management systems. This one, so far, feels only like a Hollywood show.

It’s easy to see why many hot techs have a negative impact on economic activities and the quality of life. When people are constantly checking social media for “likes” on pictures, how can they be productive or happy?

Then, one may ask why people do things that are not good for them. Well, people gamble, smoke and use drugs. Human weaknesses are always there. When big businesses organise to take advantage of them, the world becomes a worse place.

There are two kinds of internet businesses that are profitable: arbitraging or connecting people. Sharing economy is about arbitraging. Car-hailing services are really about milking the value of taxi licences. Yes, the taxi business is a monopoly and should be subject to competition. However, the car-hailing business is good at redistributing value, but is not really creating much value for the economy.

We all applaud a good search business like Google that places the knowledge of the world at our fingertips. But, remember that the millions of people who created that knowledge are the ones who made the real difference. Google is a tool that makes them more accessible, it is just a form of convenience, not a revolution. When the internet makes it easier for people not to pay for content, content makers will produce less. The world is worse off as a result.

For the first time in human ­history, a tech revolution is making people worse off. It brings out the worst in human nature and makes unscrupulous people very rich. When the best and the brightest ­become rich by amplifying the good side of human nature, the world moves forward. When some people get very rich by taking advantage of the worst traits in human nature, a dark age is just around the corner.

Andy Xie is an independent economist


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Antivirus is dead: young talents are Hong Kong’s first line of defence against cyberattacks

CommentInsight & Opinion
2017-07-24
Winnie Tang says with cyberattackers becoming ever more aggressive and global, rules and battle plans have to be redefined, and the government must urgently step up talent training in schools

The recent cyberattack by the ransomware cryptoworm WannaCry drew the world’s attention to network security. According to Kaspersky Lab, a network security software company, the number of online attacks detected in the first quarter of 2017 doubled to more than 400 million, compared with the same period in 2016, while over 200,000 mobile phones were infected by ransomware Trojans, which is 10 times the first quarter of last year.

Unfortunately, antivirus software may not be able to protect your computer and mobile phone completely. Symantec, the developer of Norton, once the best antivirus solution, announced the “death” of antivirus software as it is difficult to shut viruses away.

Cybellum, an Israeli network security firm, recently found a virus that specialised in attacking antivirus software and named it DoubleAgent. Instead of hiding and running away from the antivirus security agent, attackers now directly assault, hijack and gain control over it, turning it into a malicious agent. In other words, it is impossible for us to defend against network attack programmes and ransomware.

Michael Daniel, the White House cybersecurity coordinator in the Obama administration, said cybersecurity is a big challenge in part because we are handling new problems with old thinking. His recent article in the Harvard Economic Review focused on three reasons for the network security problem.

One, it is not a mere technical problem, although there is a technical aspect, such as how to write a totally bug-free programme.

Two, cyberspace is different from the physical world, and the rules of the game have to be redefined. At light speed, “concepts like distance, borders and proximity all operate differently”. In the physical world, a person is likely to be on site when committing a crime, while in the internet world, threats can come from anywhere and from anybody.

Moreover, a crime in the cyber world is not bounded within any particular country, much like a crime committed in the high seas. How do we hold individuals and organisations accountable for mischief done in international areas?

Three, the law, practice and rules of the internet world have not been fully developed yet, regulations are not yet complete, including the responsibility of user protection. In the case of the WannaCry attack, the global impact covered government departments, public and private organisations, and individuals, but the copyright owners of the computer software being attacked were private developers, so who is responsible for chasing after the culprit?

In addition, we have to think about the following: what is the right division of responsibility between governments and the private sector in terms of defence? Are there any protective measures provided by the companies which are handling our data? Are there any standards to follow in the industry? How should regulators approach cybersecurity in their industries? What can governments, private enterprises and individuals do and what is it they cannot do?

In short, as long as we continue to try mapping physical-world models onto cyberspace, they will fall short in some fashion.

So how can we protect ourselves? Risk is inevitable since we have to use the internet. Therefore, to manage and mitigate the risk, public and private organisations, as well as government departments should strengthen their “immune system”.

The recently published 2017 Global Information Security Manpower Research Study, which interviewed 19,000 professionals in 170 countries, flags a serious shortage of global IT security personnel. The workforce gap by 2022 will reach 1.8 million.

I believe that education is the best way to stimulate new thinking and solve problems. Therefore, it is a matter of urgency to train the younger generation in computer programming and network security awareness, as well as to promote STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) in primary and secondary schools.

The government should speed up accordingly as there are no short cuts to talent training.

Dr Winnie Tang is an honorary professor in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Hong Kong


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Hong Kong should make the best of being a low-fertility society

CommentInsight & Opinion
2017-07-24
Paul Yip says high costs and changing social norms will keep Hong Kong stuck in a low fertility trap. Instead of focusing on trying to raise fertility rates, the city should also improve health, skills and education to meet the challenge

Is Hong Kong doomed to be a society of low birth rates and eventually declining population? Austrian demographer Wolfgang Lutz has put forward the hypothesis of a “low fertility trap” that illustrates the challenges we face. When fertility rates fall below a certain threshold, he says, it could be trapped at a level of around 1.2 children per woman, far below the replacement level of 2.1. This is not just due to the demographic transition of fewer marriages, but also the self-reinforcing changes in social attitudes towards family formation.

It is a trap because of the involuntary nature of such a possibly irreversible demographic regime change. As more people choose to have fewer children, young people growing up will begin to accept small family size as the norm. This in turn affects their future aspirations to have children.

In Hong Kong, surveys show that the ideal family size is 1.6 children (that is, the number of children families want to have), while the total fertility rate is around 1.2 (the children they actually have). If the city’s youth aspire to have even fewer children, ideal family size will fall further, and so will the fertility rate.

All high-income Asian economies, including South Korea, Japan, Singapore and Taiwan, have a total fertility rate of about 1.2, lower than the average of 1.5 in the West, even though their governments have spent considerable resources in ­an attempt to raise fertility rates.

For example, the Korean government provides universal free childcare services to parents, and spent more than 61 trillion won (HK$424 billion) from 2011-2015, with little impact on improving women’s labour participation rate and fertility rate. It is going to spend another 108.4 trillion won from 2016-2020. The universal childcare service welcomes these initiatives as mitigating the pressure of raising families, but there is still little impact in raising fertility rates.

Taiwan has provided much support to families with more children, in the hope of reversing the fertility decline. Likewise, the Singaporean government has gone all out to promote marriage and fertility by offering affordable housing loans and other incentives.

Low fertility rates in these countries are not just due to financial considerations but some very practical issues, such as long working hours and gender inequality, such as the unequal burden on women of childrearing and housework. The unstable employment situation, expensive housing and high educational expenses are real barriers to bigger families.

In Singapore and South Korea, population policy committees are housed in the prime minister’s and president’s office, respectively, to reflect strong government commitment. Singapore treats its population policy as a priority in the national policy agenda. With a population about 2 million short of Hong Kong’s, and 30 per cent non-permanent residents, it is a matter of survival for Singapore to maintain a sizeable, quality population.

Compared with other advanced Asian economies – Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan – Hong Kong has the lowest average ideal family size, of 1.6 children.

In Japan and Korea, the ideal is 2.4 and 2.2 children, respectively. Thus, even amid ultra-low fertility, the two-child norm is still very strong these countries, but ­appears to be eroding in Hong Kong.

In the latest survey by the Family Planning Association, about 28.4 per cent of respondents reported that their ideal number of children was zero, reflecting that nowadays in Hong Kong, a certain proportion of couples voluntarily choose to be child-free and live the DINK (double income, no kids) lifestyle. About 40.4 per cent reported that their ideal parity was one, while only 29.4 per cent reported that their ideal parity was two.

So aspiration for family formation among our young people is not high, and the fertility intention is even lower. With expensive housing and job instability, Hong Kong has all the elements to remain in this low fertility trap for a long time.

On the other hand, we enjoy one of the longest life expectancies in the world. With the workforce ­expected to shrink from 2018, we do need to plan ahead to avert crisis.

Improving productivity and ­relying less on labour-intensive work should be the top priority. The relatively low labour costs have not provided the incentive for investing in technology to ­improve the working conditions for the three “D” work categories, namely, difficult, dirty and dangerous work. Further, replacement migration is not only an option but a real necessity, to maintain the quality of service and timeliness of completion of work.

Given the challenges, Hong Kong’s fertility rate of about 1.2 is unlikely to see much ­improvement anytime soon. The average duration between marriage and the first birth is also getting longer, to about three years now. Apparently, the gap between the ideal and reality is also growing larger.

There are too many barriers for women in Hong Kong to achieve the ideal family size, not least the financial burden of high housing prices and costs of a quality education.

If we can’t see an end to the low fertility trap, perhaps we need to ­adjust our mindset for living with a low-fertility society, and ­improve on education, skills and health to offset the population size deficit.

By making Hong Kong an ­attractive place, we still can attract the right people with the right skills to maintain the city’s sustainable development.

Paul Yip is chair professor in the Department of Social Work and Social Administration at the University of Hong Kong


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Millennials are just misunderstood, and divisive coverage is not helping

CommentInsight & Opinion
2017-07-20
Kelvin Lee says media and social stereotypes of Gen Y only deepen the generation gap, when it can be easily bridged with dialogue and empathy

It is possible to make fun of millennials over almost anything these days. Take Tim Gurner, an Australian millionaire property mogul who recently took millennials to task. His preferred “angle”? Avocado toast. “When I was trying to buy my first home, I wasn’t buying smashed avocado for 19 dollars and four coffees at four dollars each,” He told Australia’s 60 Minutes. If only that “avocado money” could buy you a flat.

In case you have not been keeping close tabs on the “millennial beat”, our generation is portrayed as one that just can’t seem to get it right. Time suggested in its “Me Me Me Generation” edition that millennials are more narcissistic because of modern technology, while the Post’s own Peter Kammerer suggested that millennials are lazy because Hong Kong employs too many maids. We are, in no particular order: insecure but, as aforementioned, narcissistic; vacation-killing but work-averse; “more generous than you think” but still selfish. If there is one consensus, it would be that our generation is simply the worst.

But just what is a millennial? While “young people” might seem like an intuitive answer, it might not be precise enough. According to researchers Neil Howe and William Strauss, millennials are people born between 1982 and 2004, aged anywhere between 12 and 35. This roughly 20-year difference in age means that while the oldest among us might very well have married and had children, the youngest are just getting started in secondary school.

Not many will disagree that today’s 13-year-old and 35-year-old have had vastly different upbringings. When the 35-year-old was born in 1982, Hong Kong was still under British rule, personal computing was still in its infancy, and Madonna was still a thing.

The cultural, economic and political shifts in this 20-year window mean that characterisations based on the age group of millennials are just broad-stroke stereotypes that hold little truth, and that social commentaries blaming millennials for killing anything, from cinemas to department stores, are, in reality, intellectually lazy arguments that oversimplify social phenomena.

Indeed, “Gen Y” is not the first generation to be at the receiving end of these unfair, ageist comments – New York magazine dubbed the ’70s the “Me Decade”, while Time later likened the 20-something Gen X’ers to Madonna’s hit song Vogue, noting they know how to “strike a pose”, so implying their superficiality. But with online journalism and the media’s incessant need for clicks, coverage these days has only grown more whimsical in tone and outlandish in content.

These divisive articles have created a schism between millennials and practically everyone else. In Hong Kong, for example, articles on “post-90s” and “post-80s”, the preferred description of millennials here, have proliferated in recent years. Millennials are condescendingly labelled “rubbish teens”, a term that describes young people as slackers that demand much from society but don’t contribute, and are judged for not having the same value set as our parents.

Even the most innocuous stories can fire up generational warfare – stories and videos documenting how some young people refuse to give up priority seats on the MTR [5], and how a civil discussion on domestic workers can turn into a full-on attack on our values and our supposedly morally decadent lifestyle. This knee-jerk response of blaming it on the young has been anything but constructive in bridging differences in our communities, and will only continue to perpetuate intergenerational misunderstanding.

Perhaps it is time for this trend to end. While millennials should be more communicative with other generations, we should not be treated with condescension, or simply dismissed for our youth and inexperience. We don’t need special treatment – we just need to be treated like everybody else.

Each generation faces challenges that are unique and might not be understood by those with a different upbringing, even people within this “millennial” umbrella might have had different experiences growing up. Only dialogue and an appreciation of differences could bridge the generational gap.

Kelvin Lee is a business student at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology