The trend of expat millennials who grew up in Hong Kong returning home after university and early careers overseas is extremely positive for Hong Kong. Highly qualified and skilled, many are very entrepreneurial and are setting up their own apartment renovation businesses, trading businesses, and even non-profit foundations
By Jack Wagner
Hong Kong is seeing a trend of expat millennials who grew up in the city returning home after having graduated from university and started their early careers overseas. While there has not yet been an official statistical study to support this claim, it is clear that a significant proportion of the population of expat millennials that I grew up with in Hong Kong have already returned home or are thinking about returning home.
Along with myself and my wife Cait, our friends Paul, Philip, Josephine, Claire, Dan, Amaury, Olivier, Jason, Alex, Florian, Elaine, Chris, Rebecca, Josh, Nadia, Natalie, Beatrix and Sally are all high school graduates from Hong Kong’s international schools between 2008 and 2012. We have come back to live in Hong Kong just in the past year – and they are just the ones off the top of my head. Another dozen friends are seriously thinking about moving back in the coming years.
This trend comes as a countercurrent to the well documented drop in the expat population of Hong Kong since 2015, namely those from the U.K., the U.S. and Australia. The American population, for instance, dropped 7.9 percent between 2015 and 2016, while the numbers of British and Australian nationals decreased by 10.6 percent and 5 percent, respectively.
The French population in Hong Kong, however, has risen significantly, growing five percent per annum over the past five years, mainly due to sluggish economic conditions back in France, forcing young professionals to find opportunities overseas, as well as the presence of more than 800 French companies here in the city.
We are spoiled by Hong Kong
While we don’t think we are in the same boat as the kids who grow up in the U.S. or the U.K., go to a university nearby, and return home to live with their parents (like so many of my former colleagues in London), that is often the case for us returnees. Many, or most, of these Hong Kong expat millennials have moved back in with their parents – including those who are in their late 20s or even early 30s.
Of course, parents who suffer the empty-nest syndrome with the absence of their kids are simply delighted to have them back; kids also don’t seem to mind having their laundry magically appear clean and folded. However, with Hong Kong rents among the highest in the world, it is likely these expat millennials are unable to afford anything more than a closet on Hong Kong Island, and are unwilling to compromise on the lifestyle they know so well by moving across the harbor to Kowloon or New Territories.
An important distinction between Hong Kong-bred expat millennials and their counterparts in the U.S. or the U.K. is that very few of these friends of home were out of a job in New York, London, or wherever else they lived after university. Of course, a few of them wanted to become DJs, but the majority could have stayed where they were with good corporate jobs, and could certainly have continued to develop their career.
Take me as an example: I was working at the London headquarters of a risk management company called PGI, and I requested to be transferred to Hong Kong. My wife was working at a fancy gym in London, and now she works at a fancier gym in Causeway Bay. Another friend worked in wealth management in London, and has returned to Hong Kong to set up a chain of hostels.
These millennials are moving back because they want to live in Hong Kong, because nowhere else did they find the quality and unique aspect of life they find so attractive – a lifestyle which includes a community of old friends in a cultural setting of glitz and glamor as well as a quiet, nature-driven way of life. Nowhere else can you be in the middle of the central business district, drive to a sunny beach and then get on a hiking trail within 45 minutes. Hong Kong-raised expat millennials are clearly spoiled – I know that all too well myself – and we are uncompromising.
We are positive for Hong Kong
I believe this trend is extremely positive for Hong Kong. Not only are many of these returning expats highly qualified and skilled individuals, but many of them are also very entrepreneurial, setting up their own apartment renovation businesses, trading businesses, or in my case, non-profit foundations.
These millennials are also adding to the social scene in Hong Kong, with a boom in new restaurants and bars for every taste in areas like Sheung Wan and Sai Ying Pun in recent years. Based on my conversations with these people, many intend to stay long-term, and we will therefore be seeing a new, exciting generation of Hong Kong-raised expat professionals climbing up the social ladder and becoming leaders of a diverse community in the coming decades.
Jack Wagner works in geopolitical risk for PGI Intelligence and is the founder of Solerico, a non-profit foundation which finances renewable energy projects in Asia.