Taiwan’s young people should “absorb all the good things about foreign countries and bring them back to help our country,” Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) presidential candidate Lai Ching-te (賴清德) told a room of young people last week. It wasn’t the first time he’d tried out the sentiment. During two separate events in the U.S. in August, he expressed hope that young second and third-generation members of “our community” (i.e., Taiwanese Americans) would travel to Taiwan more often and join “the project.” It’s become a theme.
But here’s a thought: What if… instead of asking young people to come to or remain in Taiwan, Lai provided actual reasons for them to do it?
At the moment, Lai is effectively sending out invitations for a party that doesn’t exist. Taiwan’s under-30s have had significantly less disposable income than those in the age categories above them, with average salaries of 34,019 New Taiwan dollars (around $1,120) compared to the national average of 45,376 NTD (around $1,487). Taiwan’s minimum wage, which entry-level positions are most likely to offer, has consistently remained well behind South Korea’s, which has similar household expenditure and GDP per capita to Taiwan. Taiwan’s overall unemployment rate is 3.56%, as of government statistics for July, but that jumps to 12.44% for 20-24s and 5.82% for 25-29s. At the same time as all this, the average age for first-time homebuyers was 30 to 35 in the first quarter of 2013, but for the same period last year it ranged from 35 to 40, according to data compiled by the Joint Credit Information Center. Come back, guys! Please! We bought cake! (They didn’t.)
Even ignoring issues like rents in the capital city rising faster than wages, which don’t exclusively affect young people but inevitably impact them more because of home ownership stats like the one above, this is an appalling deal. And with half of young people now having to give up a year of career-building and earning potential for recently-extended military service, you’d have to be either comatosed or a middle-aged TSMC executive too busy popping your champagne not to notice that Lai has offered almost nothing serious in the other direction.
So far in this election campaign, Lai has spoken about expanding home purchasing loans for young people. He’s also spoken about increasing subsidies to students at private universities in a way that will “at least half” the gap between tuition fees for private universities and cheaper, more selective public universities. The latter policy will benefit around 470,000 students, according to Department of Higher Education Director-General Chu Chun-chang (朱俊彰). But there’s really not much else.
Aside from tinkering with the amount of debt young people are in, then, and continuing relatively small-scale policies like the Youth Employment Investment Program, any other offers to young people have been laughably vague. “My responsibility is to give hope to the young people. Only when the young people have hope does our country have hope,” Lai said at Taiwan Foreign Correspondents’ Club event last week, in response to a question about what his government could offer them.
This is insulting. Although the issue of politicians being vague about actual policy has been identified across this election campaign so far, there is a contrast to be found with more direct, material offers to older voters. Young voters have been offered question and answer sessions on Instagram. Older voters have been offered things like relaxing rules for hiring foreign caregivers, plus the consistent, all-important message of continuity — which, right now, implies they can keep their economic gains, while young people suck it up.
Young people have intuited they’re not a priority and plan to vote accordingly. Across a range of polls, Taiwan People’s Party candidate Ko Wen-je’s (柯文哲) approval rating among voters aged between 20 and 40 is significantly higher than that of Lai, even as Lai clearly leads overall. A TVBS poll released this week showed almost 50% of 20-29 year-olds support Ko, while only 20% support the DPP man. They’re just not going to back him.
Now, of course, Ko has the advantage of looking like an outsider because he isn’t in one of Taiwan’s two main parties, and this doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s got concrete policies to better young people’s life chances. But either way, Lai’s situation remains clear. Leading a party that relied on the youth vote to win big last time around, he looks unlikely to be able to count on the same support — and that poses two questions. One: Will he offer young people anything more concrete and substantial between now and January? And two: If he doesn’t, will young people turn out in sufficiently large numbers to make him regret it?