Hong Kong cost of living forces married couples into separate beds

Record numbers of ‘married but living apart’ couples amid world’s least affordable housing
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Jim and Grace Lai, a couple in their early thirties, had the wedding of their dreams last year. But five months later they are still living apart with their respective parents.

Welcome to the world of Hong Kong millennials, every bit as vexed as the experiences of their counterparts in the US and Europe. Seventy-six per cent of Hongkongers aged 18-35 are still living with their parents, according to the Urban Research Group of City University of Hong Kong, despite an unemployment rate of just 3 per cent.

That is almost twice the level of the US, the UK or France.

Concerns about job opportunities and being locked out of the housing market mean Hong Kong millennials have much in common with their western peers. But while American and European youths are entering a world alien to previous generations, the problem confronting Hong Kong’s millennials is one with which their parents are all too familiar.

The land-scarce territory has the least affordable homes in the world, a position it has held for years. Median prices last year — which may represent a peak — were 19 times gross income, more than twice the proportion in the UK although some parts of London have already reached a similar level.

Even though multi-generational households have long been the norm in Asia the relentless rise of house prices has accelerated the stay-at-home trend over the past decade. The number of couples “married but living apart” hit a record high last year, according to a study by Hong Kong Ideas Centre, a think-tank.

The Lais know three other married couples in the same situation.

Ji Ling of the City University research group characterise the new generation’s housing choices as a deliberate strategy “to bridge the gap between dreams and reality” at a time of uncertainty and financial stress. Political tension with the mainland is rising and the economy — forecast by the government to grow just 1-2 per cent this year — is slowing, as China’s rate of growth declines.

There are deep repercussions to young people’s decisions to stay home with their parents: at 1.1 children per woman, Hong Kong’s fertility levels are far below the replacement rate.

But another factor is also at play, one that parents far from Hong Kong might recognise.

An overwhelming 95 per cent of those living with their parents like to do so, according the Urban Research Group. The city’s millennials prefer to have more money to spend by not paying rent; most said they liked being taken care of and avoiding domestic chores.

The newly-wed Mrs Lai recalls her mother once suggesting it was “funny” to live separately but has little time for such doubts herself.

“We see friends who spend most of their salary on rent,” she says. “Why suffer so much for it?”

Additional reporting by Cecilia AuYeung

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