Jobs and the Future of Work

Top 4 issues for South Asia’s millennials

An employee speaks on a mobile phone as she eats her lunch at the cafeteria in the Infosys campus in the southern Indian city of Bangalore September 23, 2014.

Image: REUTERS/Abhishek Chinnappa

Sriram Gutta
Head, India and Deputy Head, South Asia, World Economic Forum
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The Global Shapers community at the World Economic Forum is a global network of "hubs" developed and led by young people between 20-29 years of age, who are unusual in their potential, their achievement and their drive to make a contribution to their communities. These 6,100 millennials from 171 countries represent all walks of life and share a spirit of entrepreneurship in the global public interest.

Three hundred and fifty of them gathered in Geneva, Switzerland, from 19-22 August 2016. I, along with some colleagues, had the privilege of meeting some of these millennials from South Asia, and talking to them about the top four issues that most concerned them. While they represent a negligible fraction of millennials from the region, their views are perhaps more broadly representative:

1. Equitable growth

South Asia is among the fastest growing regions in the world. On the back of a long period of robust economic growth, the region has seen declining poverty rates and improvements in human development indicators. However, the region also has 40% of the world’s poor. According to the World Bank, 399 million people in the region live under $1.25/day, living in extreme poverty.

In part, this inequality has arisen out of an increasing disparity between rural and urban areas. Between 1990 and 2013, India’s Gini coefficient rose to 51 from 45.

The government has to ensure that growth and prosperity don’t flow disproportionately to a tiny elite. The region is home to the world’s largest working age population. With education and employment opportunities, this young population could drive future growth for the region. However, failure to do so could also lead to frustration and social rest among young people. The Occupy Wall Street movement and the Arab Spring both arose from a similar set of frustrations among young people – a lack of economic opportunities and a sense of unfairness.

2. Liveable and sustainable cities

What’s one thing Kathmandu, Karachi, Dhaka and Bangalore have in common? None of these cities were built to cope with the population size they’re home to today. This means that governments have always played catch-up with the rising population and its demand for services including water and sanitation, electricity and transport. The standard approach in these cases has been development first, clean up later. As a result, many of our cities are losing their water sources, green covers and clean air – and so the quality of life for inhabitants decreases.

The recent Global Competitiveness Report 2016 highlights that infrastructure remains the second weakest spot for the region, and investment in this space is critical for unlocking economic growth.

Given the congestion in existing cities, countries in the region should build well-planned urban centres and rethink the existing ones. Amravati, the capital of the state of Andhra Pradesh in India, is one such example where the government is working with Singapore to design a masterplan.

3. Education, employment and entrepreneurship

We are at the cusp of the Fourth Industrial Revolution which will disrupt the type of jobs available in the future and the skills needed to fill these jobs. It is arguable whether young people are receiving the training needed to thrive. As is clear from the Human Capital Report 2016, with the exception of Sri Lanka, the region fares very poorly when it comes to human capital.

But as mentioned earlier, South Asia has the youngest working age population in the world, providing a tremendous opportunity to leapfrog their way to development in this new industrial revolution. To do so, countries in the region will need to focus on educational enrolment and basic education completion rates, as well as increase the quality of education systems.

Another big opportunity for the region is entrepreneurship, given its potential for job creation and growth. India has taken significant steps in this through the government’s Start-up India initiative, launching a special fund as well as offering tax breaks and easing regulations.

4. Regional collaboration

South Asia is the least economically integrated region in the world, with regional trade accounting for only 5% of the overall trade. This is a result of deep rooted mistrust among countries that have a shared history, political and diplomatic concerns, and that are threatened by terrorism. At this moment, the relationship between India and Pakistan is at its most fraught since the last armed conflict in 1999. This was evident at the United Nations General Assembly and the statements and actions of both countries thereafter.

As I write this, Nepal has just indefinitely delayed the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) Summit in Islamabad, since several countries – including India, Bangladesh and Afghanistan – refused to take part. The SAARC has never really lived up to its potential, including the failure to implement the South Asian Free Trade agreement (SAFTA). The current crisis threatens the very existence of this body.

The people of these countries have a shared culture, language and history, unlike in other integrated regions, including Europe. Will the region ever be economically integrated and politically aligned?

Over 600 participants including 25 Global Shapers will discuss the above and other issues during the World Economic Forum’s India Economic Summit on 6-7 October 2016 in New Delhi. The theme is Fostering an Inclusive India through Digital Transformation.

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