Disconnected Youth, Disgruntled Adults: Social Exclusion

and Social Cohesion in a Life-Course Perspective

Stephen W K Chiu and Fung Ho-lup


Franklen K S Choi

The Social and Economic Policy Institute

1st March 2003


Executive Summary i
Acknowledgement xii
Chapter 1: Introduction 1
Chapter 2: Concepts and Methodology 10
Chapter 3: Disconnected Youth 23
Chapter 4: Middle-aged Workers 55
Chapter 5: Summary and Recommendations 99
Appendix 1: Interview Guidelines of Vulnerable Youth 114
Appendix 2: Interview Guideline for Middle-aged Workers in Face of Industrial Restructuring and Organizational Change 120
References 125



This report is the product of a research project commissioned by the Committee on Social Cohesion of the Central Policy Unit of the HKSAR Government and conducted by the Social and Economic Policy Institute (SEPI). The aim of the proposed research project is to understand the views and perceptions of vulnerable groups on the socio-economic system in Hong Kong. The specific objectives are:

  1. To give people vulnerable to social exclusion a voice with a view to understand their perceptions, worries, grievances and demands towards the government and other major social institutions;
  2. To assess the action propensity of vulnerable groups;
  3. To identify the actors that can intervene to mediate, mitigate and alter effects so as to combat social exclusion.

The proposed project will seek to answer the following key research questions:

  1. Is access to basic social rights, i.e. decent employment, education/ vocational training housing, social protection, etc., achieved for vulnerable groups in Hong Kong? In what ways does it fail?
  2. Is there any perceived barrier to policy solutions for their problems? In what sense do they think the government considered or failed to consider their predicaments?

  1. How do these groups make sense of their experience? How do they account for it? Do they attribute the blame to themselves or other social institutions? And how do they attempt to resist?
  2. What are the respective roles of families, community groups, private corporations, public organizations and government in combating social exclusion and fostering social cohesion?

We conducted in-depth semi-structured interview in the period from November 2002 to January 2003 with 14 young people aged between 16 and 22 years and 15 middle-aged people aged between 39 and 62 years. The young people were all school–leavers (with formal educational levels not higher than Form 5) and were experiencing employment difficulties at the time of interview, either jobless or with dead-end jobs. The middle-aged participants were employees or displaced workers at the time of interview, coming from sectors or companies experienced major restructuring and as a result their job security or other conditions of employment had been exposed to increasing risks of deterioration. While each category of interviewees might pursue different courses of actions to remedy their grievances, the common defining link was that both groups were vulnerable to social exclusion. To further explore the issues brought up in the interviews, focus-groups were also held and conducted with two groups of participants of Youth Pre-employment Training Program (YPTP), and one group of local domestic helpers in January 2003. Finally, interviews of 5 trade unions were also conducted to assess the action propensity of workers facing structural change.


  1. Youth and middle-aged workers are included not just in unemployment but also in insecure careers

We found that it is not difficult for many of our youth informants to have got access to a job. However, they are troubled by the prevalence of short-term, temporary and part-time jobs, the reduction of socioeconomic opportunities, and exploitation relationship in employment. Because of these experiences, they expect full-time white-collar jobs because they regard them as offering a stepping-stone to stable careers, although this may be not the case in reality.

Our middle-aged informants also face different degrees of vulnerabilities in their employment experiences and they feel high level of anxieties about job insecurity. This insecurity however varies a great deal from one group to another. Retrenchment, especially after a long service like those informants from a major telecommunication company, is a painful and bitter experience for middle-aged workers. The civil servants, although not directly threatened with layoffs, are also feeling the anxieties of job insecurity and intensification of work. The construction workers, on the other hand, are facing persistent underemployment and wage arrears. For the domestic workers, the wait for job offers is a torturous one and the chronic instability of their work is also unbearable.

  1. The capacity of the social support networks of vulnerable people may have approached its limit

Social networks can accentuate the problems in some cases as well as mitigate the pains in others. On the one hand, some youth informants have developed into warm, confident and social conscious personalities through participation in community activities, in spite of the cumulative disadvantages in upbringing and education experiences. On the other hands, for many youth informants, significant earlier family events such as divorce or death of parents have exerted important influences on their later development. The resulting emotional disturbances have led to a lack of learning attitudes in school, failures in examinations, loss of confidence in interviewing for a job, and thus reinforcing the sense of fatalism and powerlessness. The lack of social support from families may have also led some of our youth informants to exhibit delinquent behaviors.

For some of the middle-aged informants, unemployment is barely bearable because the family serves as a source of support. The loss in income and social esteem is cushioned when family members could offer support financially and psychologically. Because of their life-course stages, however, family responsibility could add to the woes of the middle-aged workers. For those who have adolescent children, the burden of raising and educating them make them even more worried. It gets worse when unemployment happens to more than one members of the family.

  1. Vulnerable groups are dissatisfied with public institutions

Although youth informants are generally less knowledgeable than their middle-aged counterparts about public institutions, some of them complain about the lack of affordable training options. Others feel that the Youth Work Experience and Training Scheme and the Youth Pre-Employment Training Programmes are helpful to them, yet they also think that the social credibility of these programmes needs to be reformed. Those having experiences with receiving Comprehensive Social Security Assistance also think that the system is very stigmatizing.

On the other hand, the middle-aged informants regard the high cost of transportation as preventing their active participation in social activities and also diminishing the desirability of job opportunities. Furthermore, some of the middle-aged respondents recount their unpleasant experiences with social services agencies. In particular, they consider the demeaning and stringent procedures of applying for the CSSA scheme have “successfully” turned away them who are in need of income support. Their perceptions of the employment services offered by the government are also rather negative.

  1. Vulnerable groups feel their voices excluded from policy decision-making

Both groups of informants feel that their voices are excluded from policy decision making. For youth informants, they generally feel that government policies are not connected with their needs but with the interests of the rich. For middle-aged informants, most of them link up governance problems with the entrenchment of special interests and invariably they point their figures at the real estates interests which they perceive to be having too much influence on policies. And they do not feel involved in decision-making at all.

  1. Vulnerable groups attribute their sufferings to government policies and the economic system

Youth informants generally attribute their employment difficulties to individual inadequacies like their ages being too young, low educational attainment and lack of work experiences. Yet many also think that the job requirements of employers are unreasonable. Some of them also regard their problems as largely caused by the economy downturn, and complain about government’s performance in managing the economy.

For the middle-aged informants who face adversities in their lives and work, it is unavoidable that some of them hold a highly negative attitude towards the government and attribute the responsibility of their problems to it. Even in the case where the informant has been retrenched from a private company, he blames for government in mismanaging the structural changes in his sector. These perceptions are also likely to be generalized out of the economy and spilled over to other sections. Housing policy is a common target of criticisms and the legislation on Basic Law Article 23 is another.

  1. Anomic reactions among disconnected youth, non-oppositional collective actions among disgruntled middle-aged adults

Although there are sarcastic outbursts of sneers and grievances among the youth informants, there are no signs of rebelliousness attempting to create disturbance and disruption in the social system. Yet it seems that because of their disadvantage in the labour market, many of them do not seem to have much hope regarding their future whereabouts. Although they have been endorsed by the society to accept material success as an important value, they feel that they had limited opportunities for advancement. Facing the hard social reality they find no clear means to guide their behaviours. As a result some of them seem to have developed fatalism and retreated to avoid the strains of social life.

For the middle-aged informants, individually most of them can be regarded as disgruntled and highly critical of the government. This, however, does not translate directly into collective action. And by collective action we do not refer only to oppositional actions (protests etc.) that direct against the government or other social institutions. It could also be non-oppositional forms that develop collective actions fostering self-help and mutual support among workers. Our study highlighted a number of attempts for collective self-help among groups of workers, especially with the help of voluntary organizations and trade unions. Based on interviews with selected trade unions, we also highlighted how the recent structural changes have both induced and hindered collective action. In the end, the middle-aged workers interviewed exhibit a kind of escapism from the troubles they have experienced. Much of their aspirations for the future, however, have been pinned squarely on the next generation. They insist that they would stay positive in their approach to lives’ travails so as not to affect their children. They would continue to encourage them to study and work hard for a better life. Despite their pessimism, the majority of them are also trying to further equip themselves by getting retraining in a variety of skills and trades.

Recommendations from SEPI

  1. Ensuring Access to Decent Employment

Our study has confirmed the positions of the OECD, Council of Europe and European Union regarding the central role of a decent job in social cohesion. Unemployment not only increases the risk of poverty and social marginalisation, but is also associated with dissatisfaction with the society. Given that the recent unemployment problem in Hong Kong is clearly exaggerated by its economic downturn, it seems to us that full employment remains an indispensable, if not the most important, goal of economic policy.

Additionally, if employment is taken as the key to foster social cohesion, a more critical view of the quality of work is required, otherwise social exclusion would not be ended. One possibility which can alleviate much grievances and anger arising out of massive layoffs would be to follow the Singaporean case which requires firms to notify the Labour Department and corresponding trade unions in advance about pending retrenchment so that prompt moderation can be made either to advice employers on alternatives to retrenchment or to assist the redeployment of workers concerned. Another area where government action is urgently called for is a comprehensive review of existing labour legislations to extend their scope of application and protection to part-time and casual workers, given that flexible employment relations have increasingly become working-class experiences. If training is still considered as one indispensable strategy for counteracting disadvantage in the labour market and promoting job development and social mobility of the disqualified, then restrictions on long working hours and the right to study leave should also be made clear by legislative means. Also included in this review may be other aspects of a job that contribute to its quality, particularly the representational rights of workers to consultation in the workplace, their freedom from discrimination, adequate remuneration, etc. An updated set of labour legislations and employment services that are consistent with the reality of labour market in Hong Kong can pay for itself in the form of greater commitment to work and employees’ productivity.

  1. Ensuring Access to Social Protection

In a period when the operation of labour market does not seem to be a sufficient nor legitimate mechanism (through the occupational division of labour) for answering the distribution question, and restoring the sense of economic security in a highly unequal society like Hong Kong, the stabilizing potential of social protection enters the center stage. The contribution of universal social services to generating community altruism and fostering social integration has long been acknowledged. On the contrary, a welfare system that is too market-oriented could lead to atomism and reinforce existing divisions.

One important step that the government could help citizens in Hong Kong reduce the fear of change, and hence complement (not hinder) the increasingly flexible labour market in a shifting and restructuring economy, is to guarantee the right of all to the protection of social security and other social services, under a reconstructed notion of social contact which prioritizes no longer the dual labour market, but the needs and equal opportunities of citizens.

In the case of income maintenance in old age, for example, the government could consider establishing a pension scheme based on the principles of social insurance and minimally acceptable standard of living, which could foster risk-sharing and social cooperation in the long run, yet largely eliminate poverty in old age, reduce substantially public expenditure on Old Age Allowance and CSSA benefits, and stimulate local economy (through pensioners’ improved purchasing power) simultaneously in the short term. Other creative uses of the public sector that resolve the apparent contradiction between social welfare and economic competitiveness could equally be designed, if much public expenditure is recognized as an achievement in social investments rather than as a burden.

  1. Enhancing Social Dialogue and Tripartism

A lack of trust in society’s institutions to provide a secure and predictable environment tends to reinforce people’s desire to seek security within groups, and this could in turn aggravate existing cleavages and exacerbate social fragmentation. A far more constructive way to handle this casualty would be to engage social partners in democratic dialogues, so that conflicts are resolved, consensus is reached and cohesion is generated through collective responsible participation.

There is obviously room for consolidating and expanding social dialogues at the macro-political level to tackle the conflicts over alternative models of economic development and social planning. This move is especially critical at the moment, given that economic restructuring has resulted in a grossly uneven distribution of social costs, and social harmony and political legitimacy have been seriously endangered. Perhaps developments towards the Singaporean model of a government-labour partnership should be pursued to restore public confidence in government’s commitment to promote the common good of its citizens.

A more formal, institutional and hence visible model of tripartism is called for. The government should expand its governing coalition to enhance the role and voice of labour in the policy-making process. Organized labour has to be given more responsibilities in the administration of employment services, but perhaps more importantly active support should be sought from them regarding any policy and legislative reforms that affect the welfare of the working class.

  1. Strengthening Partnership with the Voluntary Sector

The voluntary and community sector organizations have long been regarded by the public as the most important partner of government due to their flexible and effective delivery of social services, their tacit knowledge about the needs of the disadvantaged, and also their representation of the voices of the vulnerable. Our study has also confirmed, the families of the vulnerable also provide an important buffer against distressing events often originated in the formal work sphere. However, in practice, the effectiveness of these civil society institutions is restricted by a series of problems. Within the voluntary and community sector financial constraints may have the adverse effects of reducing the capacity of service organizations to maintain equity of provision for users. Likewise, the burden of support and care is already carried to a great extent by families which are themselves equally exposed to economic insecurity, so whether families are capable of taking any larger share is questionable if formal support is absent or retreated.

Partnership between the government and the voluntary sector needs to be strengthened. The government should ensure that its concern over cost-efficiency and financial accountability should not entail reduction of welfare for service users especially the poor. Given that the outcomes of human services are by no easy means quantifiable in monetary terms, but nonetheless constitute important indicators of social well-being and progress, a good way to reconcile all these is to accord a more active role for the voluntary sector, not just as remote contractors of service provision but also participants in policy shaping and its assessment, including expenditure planning and social accounting. In this way hopefully we can arrive at better ways of evaluating the performance of social spending in meeting social needs, fostering the genuine integration of the excluded.