Their frustrations in an unjust world can take various expressions—a fidayeen in Iraq, a stone pelter in Kashmir, a mercenary in Saudi Arabia, a rabid gaurakshak (cow protector) in India or a hedonist in Shanghai
…milega ilm-e-jihalat-numa se kya un ko nikal ke madrason aur universitiyyon se ye bad-nasib na ghar ke na ghat ke honge main puchhta hoon ye taalim hai ki makkaari karodon zindagiyon se ye be-panah dagha…
(What can possibly the young gain from the useless knowledge dished out by madrasas and universities? Dazed and confused they appear, these wretched souls Is this education or pure scam, I wonder What treachery with countless lives!)
Firaq Gorakhpuri, the irrepressible Urdu poet, penned these lines almost four decades ago, but they have a hauntingly contemporary ring. While his quarrel over the nature of pedagogy remains ever moot, the blight on the promise of youth today is probably far more pernicious.
To get a sense of the scale of the betrayal, chew on this disturbing statistic: according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD’s) Economic Survey of India, over 30 per cent of India’s youth (about 120 million) is neither employed nor in school or in any kind of apprenticeship. Add to this a crumbling welfare state, rising inequality, a rapidly changing economy that constantly needs new skills, a consumer culture that feeds on ever-new material fantasies, a never-ceasing carousal of violence, and, not to mention, a traditional society struggling with what novelist V S Naipaul described as a million mutinies, and you have a potential tinderbox.
Well, blame it on corrupt and myopic politics, an outdated and financially-strained education system, an economic system skewed in favour of the rich, and, arguably, disruptive technologies—the usual suspects. But there is a fifth factor that’s making life even more difficult and precarious for this century’s young. Demographers call it the “youth bulge”, a phrase first coined by the German social scientist Gunnar Heinsohn in the 1990s to describe a phase in a country’s demographic transition when even as fewer kids die at birth, women continue to be as fertile as before. Over the next two to three decades this translates into a youth bulge in the population curve.
With teenagers accounting for over 41 per cent (2011 Census), India is clearly experiencing a youth bulge. By 2020, the average age in India will be 29, making it the world’s youngest country with 64 per cent of its population in the working age group.
India is not the sole witness to this phenomenon. In fact, the world as a whole has never been younger. According to the Population Action International (PAI), a Washington-based private advocacy group, at least 62 countries, mostly from West Asia, South Asia and Africa, have a “very young” populace, which means every two out of three people are under the age of thirty.
As Africa’s population mushrooms, it is set to become the youngest continent in another 30 years.
Many social scientists, economists and politicians theorise the youth bulge as a double-edged sword. Harness its potential, and you enjoy higher growth and peace—a double dividend. Squander it, and you incur diminishing growth and social strife—a double jeopardy.
With the world plagued by high rates of unemployment, especially amongst the young, the auguries for the future of today’s youth are not very auspicious. Take India, for example. Even though officially only about 13 per cent of Indian youth are unemployed, much less than say Greece’s 40 per cent, many believe this figure does not reflect the whole truth as there is a significant proportion that are working as contract or ad hoc labour.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi keeps harping on India’s demographic dividend, but figures suggest that it is just one more of his government’s many clever but empty jumlas. According to the latest Employment and Unemployment Survey released by the Ministry of Labour and Employment, India needs to generate 10-12 million new jobs every year, but it mustered a paltry 5 million between 2012 and 2016. Last year, the government abandoned its ambitious plan to train 500 million workers by 2022 as it could manage a mere 20 million at the end of three years. The situation appears even grimmer considering traditional sectors such as agriculture, fisheries and forestry—which employ over 38 per cent of Indian youth—are in a grave crisis.
The figures also suggest that the more educated you are, the greater the odds that you won’t find a job. There are no figures on the number of underemployed, but according to Craig Jeffrey, an Oxford University professor who has studied the lives of educated youth in Uttar Pradesh, a large number of educated youth in India are just “doing timepass” (an Indian colloquial expression for whiling away time) as they can’t find suitable jobs.
More specifically, picture this: according to various surveys, of the one million engineers that graduate every year, as few as 7-12 per cent are fit to be employed! If figures leave you cold, you only have to watch NDTV journalist Ravish Kumar’s 25-part expose on the pathetic state of higher education to see through the dangerous hype around the much-bandied phrase “the demographic dividend”.
If only the anguish of these idlers could be harnessed by social, political and even literary movements, like it was in the US and Europe of 1960s! Unfortunately, the idle minds “doing timepass” are slowly but dangerously turning into the proverbial devil’s workshop where religion, politics, crime and poverty may combine in toxic brews. The Muzaffarnagar riots of 2013 is one such example.
India is not alone in this awful mess. In 2017, two out of three South African youth were jobless. In Greece and Spain, it was two out of five. In 2013, the world had 202 million people out of work.
The Great Recession that gripped the world in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis shows no signs of letting up. If anything, automation is making it worse. But what’s clear is that young are bearing the brunt of it. About 74 million youth between the ages of 15 and 24 were unemployed in 2013. Although that figure has come down by 3 million since then, it is still about 35 per cent of the total unemployed.
As prolonged joblessness renders the young cynical and angry, the International Labour Organization (ILO) has warned of a “scarred generation” that may become easy fodder for fascist, religious or political groups like the ISIS in West Asia, the Taliban in Afghanistan, or the Bajrang Dal in India. Or it may take to a life of crime, like leaking question papers, peddling narcotics, rioting, stealing credit cards, or joining the ranks of the lynch mobs.
THE PRECARIOUS GENERATION
That said, figures only give you a broad brush. Youth, it goes without saying, is not a monolith, and it would be foolish to paint them with the same brush when they are deeply coloured by class, race, language, caste, political ideology, religion and culture. You can’t equate an Aboriginal youth with a white Australian youth, or a village Dalit youth with an upper caste rich urban youth in India. However, as important as these markers are, one cannot deny that youth today live in an increasingly globalised world that peddles more or less the same desires such as the smartphone, the Internet, Facebook and branded products. In a global marketplace, every youth is a potential consumer.
However, if there is one marker that subsumes every other difference, even more than consumerist fantasies, it’s precarity. To quote political philosopher Zygmunt Bauman, today’s youth have been “cast in a condition of liminal drift, with no way of knowing whether it is transitory or permanent”. In other words, there is no guarantee that you might get a job even after spending a fortune to get a degree, or that you may not be laid off tomorrow. The gig economy in the digital labour market where young freelancers work at cheap rates and at time zones when their body clock is telling them to sleep is a perfect illustration of the ridiculously precarious lives of the young.
It is this precarity of their dreams, indeed of life itself, that makes the millennial such a fragile, and hence angry, creature. This anger and frustration against an unpredictable and unjust world can take various expressions—a fidayeen in Iraq, a stone pelter in Kashmir, a mercenary in Saudi Arabia, a rabid gaurakshak (cow protector) in India, or a hedonist in Shanghai.
Even as the disillusioned youth occupy the world’s attention by the sheer violence of their numbers, we know precious little about them. Even less about young women. Perhaps the only place to find credible data on youth is the Youth Development Index (YDI) developed by the Commonwealth Secretariat. It tells you, for instance, unemployment, drug abuse and depression are common among both rich and poor nations; or that of the 45,000 national level legislators in the world, only 1.9 per cent are below the age of 30; or that the odds of a young woman not having a job or education are twice that of a young man.
But data crunching can only give you a snapshot of the big picture. For a more nuanced understanding, you need multi-layered ethnographies, which are sadly lacking. Even journalistic accounts are far and few between. Journalist Snigdha Poonam’s Dreamers offers a rare peep into the largely undocumented lives of India’s youth. Her book is an account of her conversations with young men and women across the country. In an interview to the online paper Scroll.in, she gave her two cents on India’s latest generation: “If I had to boil their philosophy down to two words, it would be: whatever works. Like it or not, young India is what it is—unsatisfied, unscrupulous, unstoppable. Few young Indians I met had a clear sense of right and wrong; fewer gave a damn about it.”
Poonam might be guilty of pandering to a stereotype about small town youth. But media images of recent agitations by disgruntled youths of communities like the Jats, Patidars, and most recently dalits do give the impresion that the youth are disaffected, confused, angry, and, most importantly, wired—it’s no surprise that the social media has become the favourite disruptive arena where the youth today can vent their outrage against anything they don’t approve of.
BEHIND THE MASK
Be that as it may, journalistic portraits like Dreamers, even if their broad-brush interpretations are not too far off the mark, eventually disappoint because they bypass the murky alleys of history, which is where the real insights are to be found. As Malcom Harris, author of Kids These Days, a brilliant examination of American millennials, argues, “To understand the consequences of a generational shift, we need more than just the proximate causes of new culture and behavior; we have to pull apart the tangled nest of historical trends where they hatched.”
Not surprising, the older generations are quick to judge the “children of liberalisation” as brash, greedy, impatient, immoral, and aggressive. But is it fair to blame them for what they are? Surely, they were not created in a vacuum. They are the products of the political choices made by their parents (to be fair, at least the ones who had political power and those who were complicit). What Sarah Jones writes about the American millennials in The Nation is probably true of any other youth around the world: “What we are witnessing is a generation suffering not only from the perennial maladies of social change but from a particular set of indignities spawned by an economy that extracts and exploits, an educational system designed to enforce those deprivations, and a set of politicians who not only believe there is nothing wrong with this state of affairs but insist on calling it liberty.”
Extracting capital out of youth is part of the neoliberal project that views each individual decision or choice as a rational calculus of costs and benefits. As American political theorist Wendy Brown argues, “The rationally calculating individual bears full responsibility for the consequences of his or her action no matter how severe the constraints on this action, for example, lack of skills, education and childcare in a period of high unemployment and limited welfare benefits.”
The trouble is that with the neoliberal experimenton on the brink, its Frankensteins now have to deal with the fury and frustration of millions of young men and women left to their own devices (including, ironically, the smartphone, the ultimate icon of liberalisation).
It hasn’t escaped anyone’s notice, least of all politicians, that the kettled youth, to borrow the title of a book on violence among British youth, is the future currency of power. The rise of Trump, Modi, and Erdogan, the Brexit campaign and growing traction of right-wing politics in Europe are all portents of what the future game of thrones might look like. Militant outfits like ISIS and spiritual ones like Dera Sacha Sauda too have milked this bottled-up anguish.
WHAT IS TO BE DONE?
So what can we do if we don’t want this generation to be “lost” to the deadly pathologies of religious bigotry, fascism, crime, war, drugs, not to mention social media? The most predictable prescription is to customise education and vocational apprenticeship to the demands of a changing labour market. But this manoevre, critics quickly retort, detracts from the more critical question of whether we want to turn our schools into factories that churn out readymade grist for the mills of the labour market.
Equally, a single-minded obsession with creating more jobs ends up undermining the fundamental questions of political economy, violence, inequality, justice, environment, ethics and cultural diversity. In their angry but incisive Disposable Futures, Brad Evans and Henry Giroux argue that what is unique about such attempts is “the constant reconfiguration of the nation-state in the interests of a market that colonizes collective subjectivity with discourses of risk, insecurity, catastrophe, and inescapable endangerments”.
And as automation threatens to worsen the crisis of unemployment, Silicon Valley czars, fearing uprisings, have begun lobbying for a universal basic income for every citizen (no questions asked) to take care of their basic needs. Critics, however, dismiss the idea as another clever ploy by neoliberal governments to further abdicate their social responsibility towards vulnerable citizens, especially jobless youth.
Perhaps it is high time the world junked the discredited neoliberal project and tried something little more radical than capitalism in pastel shades. As economist Joseph Stiglitz contends, “If socialism means creating a society where shared concerns are not given short shrift—where people care about other people and the environment in which they live—so be it. Yes, there may have been failed experiments under that rubric a quarter or half-century ago; but today’s experiments bear no resemblance to those of the past.”
Radical words for a former chief economist of the World Bank, but the question is how many such voices will it take to bell the comatose cat.
(This article was first published in the 1-15 May issue of Down To Earth).
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