It is said, “The future promise of any nation can be directly measured by the present prospects of its youth.” Our predicament is to figure out by looking at the state of our youth, “what promise does our nation holds for the future?”
We would get old before getting any richer, as a nation this fear must confound us now. We have a youth bulge, but the risk is that the precious source of having young population is being wasted. Having young population is a great asset as you have far more hands to work, far more young minds to train and utilise for the development of the country but that means first creating an environment which respects and elates learning, excellence, innovation and technological entrepreneurial risk taking.
Greek philosopher Diogenes said, “The foundation of every state is the education of its youth.” In the modern economy any nation that needs to lift its population out of poverty and generate economic surplus to develop and improve the living standards of its population, it is very important to become innovative, train its workforce with utilisable skills, upskill the existing workforce and improve the quality, impact and reach of the education.
Nelson Madela said, “No country can really develop unless its citizens are educated.” Investing in skill development makes perfect economic sense; according to a report by UNESCO, “$1 invested in youth skills can pay back fifteen-fold in economic growth.”
A large youth bulge may lead to unemployment, poverty and civil unrest. Or lead to economic development and prosperity. We can find examples of both outcomes in the world; Southeast Asia was able to harness its youth bulge and convert it into the successful economic growth of the Asian Tigers–South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore. Tunisia’s youth bulge coincided with that of Hong Kong. These two could be properly compared to understand how a resource could be used or wasted. While Hong Kong’s working population peaked at 70 percent in 2005 and 2010 almost like Tunisia’s that reached 67 percent in 2010. Yet we know that both countries experienced dramatically different outcomes.
Hong Kong focused on health, education, social welfare, and public-private partnership to deliver most of the infrastructure needed for economic growth. With these interventions of developing social infrastructure Hong Kong created a fertile ground for entrepreneurship.
How Tunisia wasted that opportunity is part of history. Its youth bulge coincided with highest rates of youth unemployment in the university graduates, adding to the problem was skill gap that made young population unfit for few jobs that were available and the country faced extremely low productivity of its work force. We don’t need to delve into further details to make our point but surely in that time of youth bulge the country faced extreme political activism and unrest.
We have grave reasons to be very concerned as to where we are headed. As per UNICEF, Pakistan has the world’s second-highest number of out-of-school children. It is estimated that 22.8 million children aged 5-16 are not attending school. This is 44 per cent of the total children of this age.
Unfortunately, our youth is either busy in utilising the broadband for consuming or creating the social media slush, aka TikTok, dances or memes. They are not getting quality education and training. We have seen mushrooming of higher education institutions in the form of private universities and colleges that are turning graduates of all kinds in all subjects with very limited or almost no utility, as the standards very low. IT graduates in Pakistan do not possess requisite skills that would put them at par with the international competition. The rate of return on upskilling and education is too low and it is the responsibility of the policymakers to give direction to the youth by enabling them to learn and upskill themselves.
While we have talked about youth, education and upskilling, it is pertinent to talk about innovation. A recent global innovation index published for 2023 shows that the leaders in the innovation in business, science and technology and education are mostly from the western world. In Asia, Singapore has ranked the highest because of its high education standards, skilled workforce and its quality of research and development.
Unfortunately, as a country we don’t stand anywhere in this innovation index; our ranking is at par with many African countries far below any respectable economy of our size.
Innovation cannot work in vacuum; we need an enabling environment in the form of an ecosystem that comprises of access to required infrastructure, including communication technology and availability of information. Regulatory environment and the policies play a vital role, if the regulators are not mindful of removing the hurdles and bottlenecks that stifle new ideas then innovation cannot happen.
We talked about skill training and upskilling in another article, and I would just point out again that we can rise from the ashes if we really utilise the great human resource that we have at our hand in the form of the young population. Although providing quality education must start through government intervention with the help of the private sector and there are no two ways about it but in the short term, we need some drastic measures to earn foreign exchange.
The easiest way for that is upskilling the already trained manpower. To begin with we can provide certification courses from renowned global providers to our youth. These courses could in the form of certifications which are readily available through Internet but to safeguard form our age-old problem of wasting such initiatives through nepotism, commercialism and outright corruption, the government can engage with world class credible players to provide these trainings. We can focus on all those skills that can be taught online in the first phase, so the mode of delivery doesn’t need any infrastructure apart from what is already available and possessed by most of the young people.
Our youth is a great resource that is fast transitioning into older generation. We must utilise this resource to lift ourselves out of poverty. We must act fast otherwise we will get old before getting any richer. In a few decades the demographic scale will tilt with more older people than young, and we will face new challenges of how to provide health care and subsistence to an ageing population. We must act on a war footing now before it gets too late.
(Writer is a Harvard Alumni and tweets as @kashifmansari)
Copyright Business Recorder, 2023