Defusing South Asia's Demographic Time Bomb

When we're young, we dream about what we want to be when we grow up. But for many young people today, ineffective governments have shattered their dreams before their professional lives can begin. The psychological toll of squandered young potential is immeasurable. In certain Middle Eastern and North African countries, frustrated unemployed youths continue to take to the streets to protest, partly because of the lack of job opportunity provided by their governments. Could such youth-driven civil unrest also occur in politically ineffective countries in South Asia?

The region's youth (aged 15-24) unemployment rate is relatively low at 9.5 percent, compared with 12.6 percent worldwide and over 20 percent in the Middle East and North Africa, according to the International Labor Organization's recent Report on Global Employment Trends. The report notes, however, that the statistics don't necessarily represent youths who have stopped looking for work out of sheer frustration. Across South Asia, it says, "young people are 3.5 times more likely than adults to be unemployed." At 20.7 percent, Sri Lanka offers the region's highest rate of youth unemployment.

South Asia's policymakers still appear to be primarily concerned with boosting growth at all costs, on the assumption that this will create jobs in the long run. Regional growth came in at a decent 8.9 percent in 2010, bolstered by India's high rate of 9.7 percent and brought down by rates in Maldives (3.4 percent), Nepal (3 percent), and Pakistan (4.8 percent).

Under-30s at Almost 50 Percent

Alongside macroeconomic and structural policies to boost growth that may someday create employment, there is a need to create specialized jobs for today's unemployed youth. This is particularly crucial in South Asia, where almost half the population is below the age of 30. In Sri Lanka and Afghanistan, for instance, 41 percent and 58 percent of citizens respectively belong to this demographic. Apart from combating inflation and offering social protection measures, all political regimes in the region must make job creation an immediate priority before frustrated, unemployed youths find that their only option is to take to the streets in protest.

Entrepreneurship is a viable strategy that business and political leaders debated during the 2011 World Economic Forum in Davos as a way to boost global growth. In February, the Obama Administration released its Strategy for American Innovation which emphasized "high-growth and innovation-based entrepreneurship" as one significant way to take the U.S. forward and permanently away from the Great Recession. Perhaps such a job-creation strategy should be adapted for unemployed youth in South Asia.

The key will be to tailor entrepreneurship programs specifically for youths who most likely have been unemployed for many years. Such programs must take into account the psychology of young, unfulfilled people who by now may be too discouraged to even look for work or who don't necessarily have ideas to start their own businesses. While we wait for governments' growth policies to deliver jobs in the long run, vocational entrepreneurship could be an immediate job option for at least some of these chronically unemployed youths.

Vocational Training and Seed Capital

Vocational entrepreneurship would mean jobless youth could be taught new vocations, along with the necessary entrepreneurial skills to create their own employment in those specific vocations. It would require a well-publicized and collaborative effort between policymakers, vocational schools, and universities to lure chronically unemployed youth to participate. Local universities might offer classes in entrepreneurship at vocational schools. A combination of state and private funding from individual financiers could support such educational programs and even provide seed capital to further entice unemployed youths to start new ventures in their particular vocations.

So far, immediate job creation strategies targeted at unemployed youth seem to be eluding governments in South Asia, given the emphasis on pursuing high growth. Policymakers need to tackle generational inequality preemptively through job-creation programs such as vocational entrepreneurship tailored for their growing population of unemployed youth today—before the "ticking time bomb," as IMF Chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn aptly put it, goes off in this region, too.

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