This much we know: Under-30s in Taiwan have significantly lower wages than the national average, higher rates of unemployment, and their chances of buying a house are drifting off into the distance. One outgrowth of these conditions has been that young people have turned away from the leading candidate to be the next president, the Democratic Progressive Party’s Lai Ching-te (賴清德), because he appears to have offered young people little in the current election campaign. The third-party candidate, Taiwan People’s Party’s Ko Wen-je (柯文哲), has been favored instead.
But this isn’t the only way that these material circumstances are finding expression. Young people in Taiwan can also wield a blunter tool: the threat of leaving Taiwan altogether.
Earlier this year, a government survey found that 23.2 percent of 15 to 29-year-olds said they were interested in working in any of the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, Europe and Northeast Asia. And this is not just talk. According to Taiwan’s National Statistics, cited by Channel News Asia, the number of Taiwanese working overseas increased by 77,000 between 1998 and 2019, at an average annual growth rate of 1.1 percent. This increase isn’t explained away by population growth, either, as the working-age population is currently falling.
So, why do young people want to leave Taiwan?
This week, speaking to a number of them who expressed either vague or definite intent to leave, all from New Taipei City, two trends came up: low wages and a deep skepticism about Taiwan’s politicians.
“It’s hard to find a good job,” says Luo Yu-Ching (羅俞晴), a 23-year-old National Open University (國立空中大學) student currently looking for part-time work. “It’s hard to get a decent salary because my school diploma isn’t worth a lot [and] the minimum wage this year is $176 [New Taiwan dollars] per hour. It shouldn’t be just that.” Speaking in a Taipei coffee shop, she says she thinks the minimum wage should be higher, especially as inflation has risen. She also believes employers deliberately keep people part-time to avoid giving them more benefits like pensions and holiday pay. In previous jobs, she’s not been paid for national holidays during the Lunar New Year, Dragon Boat Festival and the Moon Festival, and she doesn’t receive an annual bonus, as people in full-time work tend to. She feels like she’s been deliberately “kept separate” from the full-time workers, and this is a “really quite important reason” she’s determined to get out and work elsewhere.
Another angle comes from Dennis Zeng (曾泓縉), an 18-year-old interested in studying electrical engineering in either the U.K. or the U.S. He isn’t thinking about leaving for work right now, but he’s felt the mood music regarding politicians’ lack of interest in people his age. “Most of the candidate[s] [are] not dedicated to kids of my age since we can’t vote now,” he says via written message. A government-backed referendum on lowering the voting age from 20 to 18 was voted down at the end of last year.
It is, of course, possible to express an interest in leaving without being totally pessimistic about the political and economic situation. Sam Huang (黃詠恩), a 19-year-old student, says via written message that he’s skeptical about the “practicality” of the Chinese Nationalist Party’s (KMT) proposal to raise the minimum wage and the Democratic Progressive Party’s proposal to increase the housing supply and lower rents by taxing empty properties, but endorses Ko Wen-je’s alternative offering. Ko has suggested that low wages can be tackled by reducing the numbers of students on university courses not linked to industries with high demand for jobs. Huang believes that studying abroad could help him get a better job, and he’s also interested in working abroad, but with the ultimate aim of bringing the skills back to Taiwan.
To match that relative optimism, though, it is also possible to find really deep cynicism. Eric Wu (吳奕昀), who we previously interviewed about his experiences of military service in Taiwan, has since gone to the U.K. to study an MA in marketing. Of politicians in Taiwan, he offers the blanket opinion that “they’re just pretending to care” and says by phone that “they’re more like ‘doing business,’ try[ing] to earn money.” His response to that, plus the prospect of carrying an aging population, is to take his “business” elsewhere. “I think if the government is just doing business, then why don’t I just come to [an]other country and do my own business?” He says that “Not only [do you get a] higher income,” but you get to live “in a better country.”
Now, the fact that almost a quarter of young people might hold views like these does leave three quarters thinking otherwise. But those who are considering moving abroad are a reminder that even if elections can be won without the backing of young people, taking them for granted isn’t free of consequences. An aging, shrinking population needs people who can work, and if politicians and governments show disdain or disinterest in those people, they do have their own cards they can play.
Image: Kris Lih, Domino Theory