26 March 2014
Animation Asia Conference

Asia's youth

There is no time like the present for investing in our youth, those between the ages of 12 and 24.

There is no time like the present for investing in our youth, those between the ages of 12 and 24. After all, today's youth are tomorrow's workers, entrepreneurs, parents, citizens and leaders. Indeed, investing in youth will boost economic growth, reduce poverty, and make us all better off.

This is especially the case for developing countries whose youth number 1.3 billion, or almost one-quarter of their population. Asia which is home to half the world's total population is also home to half of the world's youth.

How should we invest in youth? The World Bank has a number recommendations for us in its 2007 World Development Report.

First, we should broaden the opportunities for developing human capital by expanding access to and improving the quality of education and health services, by facilitating the start to a working life, and by giving young people a voice to articulate the kind of assistance they want and a chance to participate in delivering it.

Second, we should develop young people's capabilities to choose well among these opportunities by recognising them as decision-making agents and by helping ensure that their decisions are well informed, adequately resourced, and judicious.

Third, we should provide an effective system of second chances through targeted programs that give young people the hope and incentive to catch up from bad luck or bad choices.

These investments must however be modulated through youth's five life transitions, namely: (i) learning after primary school age; (ii) starting a productive working life; (iii) adopting a healthy lifestyle; (iv) forming a family; and (v) exercising citizenship.

All of this analysis by the World Bank seems nice, and perhaps even common sense. But for those of us in the Asia-Pacific region, there are very deep issues at hand.

These past few decades, the Asia-Pacific region has undergone the most rapid economic transformation that any part of the world has ever seen. In this context, the region's youth are very much a bridging generation between the old and the new. They are growing up and maturing in dramatically different contexts to their parents. Traditional structures are under threat everywhere. While the reduction in patriarchal power can have benefits for youth, it can also remove long valued and reliable support systems.

Asia's extended families are now increasingly nuclear. In the past, people's loyalties were predominantly to their parents. This is now reversing so that loyalties are more toward children and partners. This is reflected in a rapid transition from arranged marriage to people selecting their partners themselves.

Thus, relationships between generations have changed. Patriarchal (and in a few places matriarchal) dominance has been eroded. The family is much less the unit of economic (as opposed to social) organization and production, with the move away from agriculture to manufacturing and services, and increasing urbanization. The role and status of women is shifting in many Asian countries away from totally family-based activities toward working outside the home.

Youth have led the move from rural areas to the city, such that Asian cities have young populations. Thus, elders' control over younger family members has been reduced.

The region's youth have been the first to grow up in the post-colonial era, and to experience near universality of primary education, electronic media, forces of globalization and the urban/manufacturing job market. They have been exposed to a wider range of ideas than earlier generations. The pace of change will continue to be rapid and this will create new pressures.

This is the largest youth generation the world has ever seen. It is also likely to be the largest that we ever see due to the remarkable decline in fertility. It is a boom generation, one that is larger than the generation immediately before and after it. This youth is getting married and forming families at an older age than in the past. They are less likely to be involved in a family business and more likely to be an independent salary earner than in the past.

Thanks to globalization and the Internet, a higher proportion than ever before know about opportunities not only throughout their nations, but also in other nations as well. Moreover, the existence of widespread social networks and a cheapening and quickening of transport has made greater mobility possible.

This youth bulge is generating a demographic dividend as an unprecedentedly large proportion of the population enter the work force. This demographic dividend will only begin to decline in the late 2020s.

However, along with an expansion in opportunities has come an increase in challenges which youth from the Asia-Pacific face. The large size of the generation is creating great pressures on labor markets to productively absorb the burgeoning workforce. And while the Asia-Pacific has been the world's most economically dynamic region, youth unemployment is over 10 per cent, some three to five times greater than that of adults. They account for half the region's overall jobless.

And while the region's youth is pushed to get the best education possible, it is far from clear that their education systems are serving them well as reflected in mismatches in the labor market. Many university graduates have difficulty getting jobs because there are too many of them or they don't have the right skills, while there are shortages in the technical and trade fields. When they enter the labor market, young people are usually the last hired in economic good times, and the first fired in times of crisis.

In fact, the region's unemployed youth are more typically educated and middle class. They can afford to remain unemployed because their families support them. But they represent both a waste of human potential and a source of social discontent.

At the same time, significant numbers of youth still face a variety of obstacles in their access to employment, education, health care etc. In particular, girls from poor families, rural areas, urban slums and ethnic and language minorities are much less likely to complete the full education cycle. Many young people work in the informal sector with poor working conditions and inadequate social protection.

Youth behavior in the region is increasingly characterized by ill-informed risk-taking like drug use, alcohol, smoking and pre-marital sex. There is a widespread lack of knowledge about reproductive health and rights. Youth account for about half of all new HIV infections in the Asia-Pacific region. Teenage births have been increasing in the Philippines, a country where the Catholic Church limits access to sex education. Youth are disproportionately represented among sex workers. The growing activities of criminal groups, especially in human trafficking and drugs, target mainly young people. And the rate of suicide is also increasing.

There is always a risk that this bridging generation between the old and the new becomes a lost generation in some countries. Even in Japan, Asia's first miracle economy, there are signs of a lost generation caused by the lack of opportunity resulting from two lost decades for the economy.

2011 was the year of the Arab Spring. It highlighted how economic models that lead to high unemployment, growing inequality, and lack of opportunity, and which don't involve youth in society's decision-making processes are both socially unsustainable and politically untenable in the long run.

Asia's governments need to take their youth much more seriously, to exploit their potential as a source prosperity, poverty reduction, stability and positive change for Asian societies.


John West
Executive Director
Asian Century Institute
Tags: asia, asian youth

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