An ageing Hong Kong needs to end the self-imposed social seclusion of a significant number of its young people. Some efforts are showing promise.
Hong Kong's growing population faces two pressing challenges: a rapidly ageing society and an alarmingly low fertility rate.
The fertility rate, at just 0.77 births in 2021, falls far below the replacement level of 2.1. Yet, the city boasts the world's highest life expectancy, with averages of 81.3 years for men and 87.2 years for women in 2022.
At a time when Hong Kong society needs the contribution of its younger generations more than ever to remain vibrant, a significant number of young people instead choose social exile.
"Hikikomori" is emerging as a serious issue. Hikikomori is a phenomenon where individuals, typically young people, withdraw from society, often confining themselves to their homes for extended periods. This behaviour is marked by heightened social anxiety, reduced self-efficiency and a strong reluctance to engage in society.
It contributes to loneliness, school absenteeism and unemployment and leads to the emergence of issues like Youth Not in Employment, Education, or Training and "lying flat" in China, which is a movement to avoid succumbing to the societal pressure to overwork and overachieve.
Without a substantial, vibrant youth population, Hong Kong faces the spectre of rapid depopulation, casting a shadow over its financial and economic prospects and overall sustainability.
The phenomenon is most pronounced in Japan, where the first generation of socially withdrawn youths are transitioning into middle age. With many of Japan's older parents retiring or dying, the nation faces the grave challenge of integrating a substantial population of disengaged and unskilled people into society.
In 2019, an estimated 610,000 people aged between 40 and 65 in Japan were already experiencing hikikomori, compared with the 541,000 aged 15 to 39.
There's a lack of evidence-based prevention and intervention programmes addressing prolonged social withdrawal behaviour. While it's reasonable to assume public talks and parent workshop programmes could raise awareness and support affected youths, they haven't been implemented.
Intervening to motivate and engage youths suffering from prolonged social withdrawal is crucial once a referral has been made. Since 2010, researchers have been developing, piloting and evaluating a comprehensive intervention programme known as Regain Momentum.
This programme includes home visits, casework, group activities, transitional vocational support and even dog-assisted interventions, all designed to reintegrate youths into their communities.
In a study involving 125 young people with prolonged social withdrawal behaviour, 75 percent recorded a positive response, achieving full-time (28.8 percent) or part-time (11.2 percent) employment, while 35.2 percent resumed their studies after participating.
The research identified significant results, including reduced socially withdrawn behaviours, less social anxiety and increased self-esteem and self-perceived employability.
However, this programme faced challenges, particularly the time required to engage youths compared with other services for young people.
Despite the challenges, the programme demonstrated a promising response in Hong Kong and other countries.
These withdrawn young people can be identified and return to normal daily routines if multidisciplinary efforts are provided timely and patiently.
Several other projects show potential and have undergone pilot phases.
A Hong Kong initiative involves a partnership between a non-governmental organisation and a university. It allows university students to work at elderly care or rehabilitation centres while pursuing a diploma in health studies (community health care). Upon completion, the government reimburses their tuition fees.
Such initiatives prepare young people as potential future caregivers and offer insights into their views on ageing, helping shape future policies on aged care.
There are also positive developments in South Korea, where the government plans to implement policies using big data from government offices to identify and proactively reach out to socially withdrawn youths.
These policies aim to improve mental health and reduce feelings of loneliness among affected individuals. The government also intends to offer one-year living, medical and tuition subsidies to guide these youths towards becoming productive members of society.
The hikikomori phenomenon, if left unrecognised and unstudied during its early stages in non-Japanese cultures, could lead to a shortage of skills and resources among future generations.
Associate Professor, Paul W.C. Wong is a registered clinical psychologist and clinical researcher on suicide prevention, positive youth development, and human-animal interactions at the University of Hong Kong.