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India’s elusive demographic dividend

‘Every youth is a chemical reaction.’ - Anonymous

Young people represent hope. Hope that they’ll take the reins in the future as well as do something worthwhile to enrich the present. With 65% of India’s population below the age of 35 years, we’re banking on more than just hope. The average Indian by 2020 will be 29 years as against 39 in China, 40 in the US and 46 in Europe. Work in the future will be unlike what we’ve been used to till now, with significant technological disruption- it’s estimated that 69% of jobs are threatened by automation in India. To add to these sweeping changes is the socio-cultural complexity and diversity of India that demands inclusion and access for every solution proposed.

Around 8-10 million young people enter the labour market every year that is increasingly crowded. Unemployment hit a high in 2018 with 23.7% of 15-29 year-olds being unemployed. Of those who managed to secure work, life is not looking too sunny either. The vast majority of salaried and self-employed earn less than Rs. 18,000 and Rs. 10,000 per month respectively. For most Indian youth, India’s demographic dividend is actually a problem of insufficient jobs, stagnant wages and a not so hopeful future.

Why are things not working as they should?

Albert Einstein once said, “we cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them”. But to elevate our thinking to solve them we need to acknowledge and understand the problems. I highlight three big ones that will define whether our demography actually pays any dividend or not.

1. Who’s job is it anyway?

Through the National Skills Development Corporation (NSDC) the Government of India hoped to rope in industry participation to spearhead the skilling revolution. The results are underwhelming. Globally, the main source of financing for skill development has been the private sector. 85% of Chinese firms, 52% of Russian, 51% of Brazil, and 51% of Mexican firms were conducting in-house enterprise-based training. In India, though the figure is at a low 36%. State and civil society (aided by CSR) have gone all out to skill young people, without an equal reciprocation by the market. This might prove to be a bigger hurdle in the future because without industry participation training institutes cannot be expected to prepare young people for a world of work being incrementally disrupted by automation and technology. There is also a proclivity of large sections of the industry to treat skilled and unskilled persons at par, thereby depriving skilling of any meaningful economic incentive.

2. The gulf between youth development and youth employability

Pic courtesy: Kruthika Rao

NSDC did manage to get private participation in the provision of training. Unfortunately, this led to a mushrooming of skill training companies and initiatives out to make a quick buck. The skill training boom also created an unwanted gulf between youth development and youth employability. Government funding has been cornered by companies/ NGOs (training shops in many cases) who train young people for a particular job without enough emphasis on building a growth mindset that will help these young people over a course of their initial years in the world of work. An excessive focus on skilling in isolation meant that the larger perspective building and resilience that young people need to build to shape a positive life for them and their milieu was missing. And resilience is exactly what young people will need more and more in the coming years, along with emotional intelligence, learnability and critical thinking in order to be ready for new forms of employment, that might be of poor quality, with a low degree of job and income security and restricted opportunities for collective representation.

3. Obstacles to dignified work

India’s penchant to juxtapose occupations with caste, fascination with defining socio-cultural boundaries for women and love for government jobs has completely warped our view of work. The caste system not only assigns a definite occupation to each individual but also imposes certain restrictions on the change of occupation. People refuse to take up jobs that are associated with groups from castes perceived lower than theirs. Sweeping or cleaning jobs are usually not taken up by higher castes. Young people being trained for work in the service/ hospitality sector often refuse to clean tables or utensils. But, for government jobs, socially more acceptable than any other form of work, they wait endlessly and don’t mind applying for work otherwise considered ‘menial’. India’s female labour force participation is at a historic low not because women refuse to work, but because of issues around mobility and cultural constraints that inhibit women from the beginning and continuing in work. These obstacles prove most overwhelming for those on the margins if good education continues to be more elusive, in the coming future the condition will not improve either.

What does the future hold for young people?

No matter where we are, what we do or how life treats us, we hope for a better future. Young people won’t just shape the future, they are the future. Many young people are starting their working lives in less secure and stable forms of work. Work provides individuals with dignity and purpose, and it is ultimately a key to long-term social integration into society. The answers lie in the meaningful engagement of youth in shaping and furthering their ideas and lives. The imperative is: buy-in

  • To design policies and programs that understand the value of positive and empowering learning experiences and pay due attention to pedagogy.

  • To give due space to civil society organizations in designing contextualized and relevant training experiences for young people on the fringes.

  • To create focused strategies of working with young women and helping them tackle roadblocks in their career progression.

  • To keep young people at the centre of skills development strategy and creating institutional buy-in

for self-learning as a driver of change in young people’s preparedness for the future.

  • Enabling healthier and more purposeful industry participation while training as well as encouraging real-world experiences for young people through structured internships and apprenticeships.

Pic courtesy: Kruthika Rao

Last but not the least, as we continue to grapple with issues of quantity and quality in our education system on the one hand and the stubbornness of growing inequality, soaring aspirations and pervasive embrace of technology on the other, we need to deliberately pursue an equal future of work for young people across our socio-economic spectrum. We have our task cut out.

This blog is written by Ashutosh Tosaria. For the last 12 years, his work has focused on children and youth- what gets them excited about their future and how they become self-learners. Working closely with various education systems (govt schools, vocational and technical training institutes), he has developed a sincere conviction in the power of learning experiences. Views expressed in this blog are his personal. Please reach out to him author if you're keen to understand how some of these ideas hit the ground.


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