9th April 2024 – (Hong Kong) In the neon-lit streets of Hong Kong, a palpable sense of uncertainty hangs in the air for many of the city’s secondary school students. As they navigate the critical juncture of adolescence, a significant number find themselves grappling with a profound question: What lies ahead? A recent survey conducted by the Sociology Department at Hong Kong Shue Yan University has unveiled a startling reality – nearly 80 percent of Hong Kong’s secondary school students express uncertainty about their life paths.

The findings, presented by Professor Cheung Yuet-wah, the lead researcher, paint a concerning picture. A staggering 20.8 percent of the surveyed teenagers exhibited what the researchers termed a “lying flat” attitude, a phenomenon that has swept across China in recent years, where young people reject a career-oriented lifestyle in favor of focusing solely on their basic needs.

Professor Cheung’s voice resonates with urgency as he unpacks the implications of these findings. “We need to help youths establish their life goals and direction,” he emphasises. “They need to know what they need to do to achieve their targets and be motivated to improve themselves, resulting in them leading life more proactively.”

The study, which surveyed over 1,100 students aged 15 to 24, including 543 secondary school pupils, between November 2020 and May 2022, delved deep into the realm of self-identity and commitment to life goals. Alarmingly, a quarter of those who expressed uncertainty about their goals confessed to not actively exploring a life direction, accounting for a fifth of all secondary school respondents.

Cheung’s research highlights the profound impact that a sense of self-identity can have on various aspects of a young person’s life. Those with a well-defined self-identity generally scored higher in areas such as self-esteem, relationships, proactiveness, and social skills compared to their peers lacking this trait.

“Those who have self-identity have greater life satisfaction, take more initiative to solve problems, have better relationships with their families, and actively participate in social activities,” Cheung explains. “They are also less likely to be addicted to social media and are more proactive in planning for their career.”

While the study found that nearly 35 per cent of tertiary education students had developed a sense of self-identity, a concerning 18.1 percent exhibited the “lying flat” attitude. However, Cheung notes that young people often mature and become more open to diverse possibilities throughout their tertiary education, engaging in social activities that aid in developing a stronger sense of self.

Cheung acknowledges that the proportion of Hong Kong youths with self-identity aligns with levels observed in similar studies conducted in the United States and European countries. However, he emphasizes the need for proactive measures to help young people find a sense of direction at an earlier stage in their lives.

Drawing inspiration from Japan, where studies have shown 40 to 50 per cent of youths possess self-identity, Cheung advocates for the promotion of life-planning activities and resources tailored specifically for Hong Kong’s youth.

Amidst the statistics and academic analyses, the voices of Hong Kong’s youth resonate with a profound sense of uncertainty and confusion. Yoyo, a university student, candidly admits that her secondary school academic performance was far from outstanding. During her high school years, the process of choosing subjects filled her with trepidation, fearing that a wrong choice could derail her future academic and career prospects.

“I was worried about choosing the wrong subjects, which could impact my future studies and employment opportunities,” Yoyo confesses, her voice tinged with a lingering uncertainty.

It was the encouragement of her teachers that prompted Yoyo to explore extracurricular activities and competitions, unveiling a world of possibilities beyond the confines of the classroom. “I realised that the world outside of school was vast, and that studying was not the only path forward,” she reflects. “The most important thing was to relax and face the challenges ahead with determination.”

Yoyo’s journey echoes the sentiments of many Hong Kong secondary students grappling with the weight of academic pressure and the uncertainty of what lies beyond the school gates.

In Hong Kong’s highly competitive educational landscape, academic performance is often viewed as the paramount indicator of success. High-achieving secondary students quickly identify their desired subjects, gravitating towards the so-called “dream majors” such as medicine, law, and global business and finance, as if these disciplines hold the key to unlocking their future careers.

For these students, exceptional academic performance equates to a sense of choice and control over their career trajectories. However, for those whose academic performance falls short of societal expectations, the path forward can seem shrouded in uncertainty.

Many find themselves caught in a limbo, lacking the confidence to pursue higher education and the high-paying professional careers that come with it, yet disinterested in lower-tier occupations. The result is a profound sense of directionlessness, where the act of choosing a career path becomes an overwhelming and daunting task.

Recognising the gravity of this issue, the Hong Kong government has made concerted efforts to promote “life planning” initiatives, particularly within the educational system. Through seminars, field trips, and counseling services, schools aim to deepen secondary students’ understanding of academic pathways and the job market, while also facilitating self-assessments to help them gain insight into their abilities, interests, and personalities.

While these efforts are commendable, Professor Cheung argues that a more comprehensive approach is needed, one that involves a broader range of stakeholders and employs diverse methods to increase support for secondary students in their career development.

“We need to encourage students to approach obstacles positively and enhance their self-efficacy, helping them believe in their ability to create their own futures,” Cheung advocates.

He further suggests allocating resources to hire professional career counsellors, including certified Global Career Development Facilitators, who possess specialised knowledge and skills to provide tailored guidance to individual students based on their unique circumstances and needs.

Beyond the institutional efforts, Hong Kong’s youth themselves are taking matters into their own hands, embracing a spirit of exploration and self-discovery. Organisations like the Hong Kong Youth Arts Foundation (HKYAF) have become beacons of hope, providing platforms for young people to explore their creative passions and unlock their inherent potential.

HKYAF founder Lindsey McAlister, believes that encouraging young people to venture beyond the confines of academic pursuits is crucial. “We aim to empower our youth by exposing them to a diverse range of artistic disciplines, allowing them to uncover their hidden talents and passions,” she explains.

Through initiatives like the HKYAF School & Communities Outreach, students from underprivileged backgrounds are given the opportunity to participate in workshops, performances, and mentorship programs, broadening their horizons and instilling a sense of purpose.

As Hong Kong grapples with the challenge of guiding its youth towards fulfilling lives, it becomes evident that a paradigm shift is needed. Rather than perpetuating the notion of a singular, predetermined path to success, the city must embrace the diversity of its young minds and celebrate the myriad of possibilities that lie before them.

In the words of Yoyo, “The most important thing is to relax and face the challenges ahead with determination.” It is a sentiment that resonates deeply, reminding us that while the journey may be uncertain, it is through embracing that uncertainty and celebrating the richness of human potential that true fulfillment can be found.