Youth Challenge

The stars above us, govern our conditions.— Shakespeare

Azam Khan, an 18-year-old, works in a boutique in Karachi for 10 hours as an errand boy and earns Rs12,000 a month. Shy and soft-spoken, he thinks it is the stars that determine one’s life path. “What can I aspire to? I have no education. Jo naseeb mein hai [whatever destiny has in store]…” he mumbles. He comes from Shangla, one of the most deprived districts in Pakistan. He is the lad who irritates the policymakers and the politicians because he has no story to tell — no story of hope, no story of reaching out for the stars, no story of ‘youth creativity and energy’, the phrase our policy documents on youth bulge and youth dividend are full of.

Don’t get me wrong: we do have youth in Pakistan who dream and make their dreams come true, dreams of studying at MIT, becoming a scientist, doctor, engineer, CEO of a company, rock star, artist, writer. The list is long and the number of young achievers is also not short. But let’s talk about lads like Azam, who have never been to school and whose number is significant in Pakistan’s youth bulge.

At present, 27.69pc of Pakistan’s total population is between 15 to 29 years of age that falls under the international definition of youth. In absolute numbers, out of 181.72 million people, 50m are young. Of these, 22.1pc are literate. Among this pool of literate youth, 5.28pc, or 2.65m, have completed primary level education, 5.53pc, or 2.78m, have done their matriculation and 2.66pc, or 1.338m, have accessed 12 years of education.

According to official statistics, 43.6pc of the employed workforce in the country’s labour market has no formal education and is suffering from high vulnerability, low productivity levels and poor remuneration. Thus, the biggest constraint for the youth of this country when they enter the labour market is their low level of education and lack of skills.

While tracing the government policies towards meeting the multifaceted challenge of a growing young population we find that the country’s first ever National Youth Policy in 2008 talked of turning the ‘demographic dividend’ into an ‘economic dividend’. However, none of its 14 stated objectives related to equipping the young population with education. Several objectives referred to intangible things such as inculcating a sense of pride (on being Pakistani) and Islamic values, mutual friendship and integration, while the remaining dealt with secondary stuff (ie recreation, sports). Only one, out of 14, objectives related to economic participation of youth (ie income generation).

In recent years, the government has come up with several youth schemes. The fundamental flaw of addressing the challenge of the youth bulge through special schemes is its marginalisation from rather than mainstreaming into the national economy.

Youth employment cannot be dealt with separately as it is integral to the overall labour market, which in Pakistan is beset with informality. The majority of the employed — 73.6pc — works in the informal sector which is characterised by low wages, lack of social protection and unsafe work places. The bulk of the employed — 53.1pc — falls in the category of ‘vulnerable employment’ that includes own-account workers and contributing family workers. In such a problematic scenario, the economists emphasise the need for broader labour market reforms, even in the context of tackling youth employment issues.

The ILO in its report Youth Unemployment 2013 recommends employment and economic policies to create job opportunities and improve access to finance. Substantial budgetary allocation in education and training is considered critical. There is a strong correlation between the educational attainment of a country’s workforce and higher wages in the country. The key to the foundation for economic success and shared prosperity lies in investing in education. The Pakis­tan Vision 2025 talks of public expenditure on education to reach 4pc of GDP by 2018 but practically there are no indications towards this move.

The ILO report also suggests labour market policies to target employment of disadvantaged youth and self-employment to assist potential young entrepreneurs. The report emphasises labour rights based on international labour standards to ensure that the workforce, including the young, have decent work and a dignified life.

The issue of productive engagement of the youth in the country’s economy is linked with social development indicators and overall decent employment conditions. Unless the government substantially increases public expenditure on education, health and social protection, and makes concerted efforts to bring about structural changes through multipronged, balanced national policies, the future of the majority of young people here would be bleak. And youth, like Azam Khan, who is shy of dreaming, of aspiring for a better life, will remain stuck in a deterministic mode of thinking.

Published in Dawn on July 21 2015:

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