Don’t turn a golden goose into an elephant in the room

For India, the top national priority for next 20 years should be one and only - the skilling and employment of youth, in order to realize their full potential

Don’t turn a golden goose into an elephant in the room
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V Venkateswara Rao

South Asia will have the largest youth labour force in the world until 2040 with almost half of its population of 1.82 billion below the age of 24, led by India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. The region has one of the largest youth labour forces in the world, with nearly 1,00,000 young people entering the labour market each day. In India, the number of working-age people will increase until 2050.

This young population and growing labour force is an asset in an aging world and provides a demographic advantage. South Asia’s young people can drive economies and societies to be more vibrant and productive. But if the youngsters do not have the right skills, this demographic dividend cannot be utilized, warns the recent UNICEF 'Voices of Youth' survey conducted among young people in South Asia during June 2020.

The current education system in South Asia is not able to lay the foundations for young people to become employable. Projections show that according to current trends, more than half of the youth workforce (54%) are not on track to have the education and skills necessary for employment in 2030. Curricula at school and college levels have limited elements of practical knowledge in vocational subjects and they are not aligned with the changing demands of the labour market.

South Asian youth believe that the education system does not sufficiently prepare them for quality work opportunities. Digital divide is also adversely affecting the youth among rural areas and poorer sections, with most not having access to internet or owning a smart phone. As per the survey, South Asian youth value soft skills as much as hard skills, but not enough youth are receiving necessary training in soft skills.

The demographic dividend in South Asia needs to be realized within the context of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Globally, nearly 50% of the jobs we are preparing young people for today will not exist by the time they enter the workforce. Digital and automation disruptions are bringing about dramatic changes and transforming society, economies, jobs, and people’s personal lives. South Asia needs to leverage the opportunities presented in order to create a desirable and productive future of work for its youth.

Few South Asian youth (11%) are entrepreneurs, and would-be entrepreneurs face many obstacles. This would indicate that more South Asian youth prioritize finding stable employment than undertaking entrepreneurial ventures, which often entail risk-taking, seed money and no immediate financial returns. Among those who already have their own business, the trend towards entrepreneurial pursuits could be partially explained by youth’s disillusionment with the current status of the job market. Most participants said that their entrepreneurial pursuits were borne out of frustration with employment prospects.

Most respondents cited employers hiring within their networks and lack of jobs as the top barriers to employment.

Unlocking the full potential of the region’s demographic dividend will require governments and the business community to improve the quality of secondary education and upskill South Asia’s workforce. Maximising the demographic dividend means fostering a generation of young people ready for the future of work. To not do so means leaving behind more than half of the next generation’s potential. There is no better path to stronger economies and peaceful societies than investment in quality education and skills development of youth for a successful transition from education to employment and from adolescence to adulthood.

For India, the top national priority for next 20 years should be one and only - the skilling and employment of youth, in order to realize their full potential. Ignoring this top national priority would tantamount to a grave injustice that we would be fostering on the next two generations. Misplaced national priorities may turn a golden goose into an elephant in the room.

(V Venkateswara Rao is an alumnus of IIM, Ahmedabad and a retired corporate professional.)

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