Why are 39pc of our youth sitting idle?

Young job aspirantsFile Photo

The results of certain surveys conducted by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS) demand our attention because these depict an alarming picture of Bangladesh’s society, economy and education. There have always been questions and doubts concerning the information provided by the bureau. In the past, economists have raised questions concerning the BBS’ data concerning the economy particularly concerning growth. Even so, the recent surveys have shed light on various aspects of the lives of Bangladesh’s citizens.

The facts and figures that emerge from any survey describe certain situations, but do not offer the reasons behind these circumstances. In order to search for these reasons, all the information must be read and analysed. Comparisons must be drawn up with information from other sources too.

According to the Bangladesh Sample Vital Statistics-2023, Bangladesh’s population stands at 171.5 million (17 crore 15 lakh). It is revealed who among this population are participating in the area of education and who are not. It has been found that 39.88 per cent of the youth are neither involved in studies nor in work. They are of the 15 to 24 age bracket. Most of the media in Bangladesh published this news with headlines like ’39 per cent youth spend idle time’. Such headlines imply that the youth are willingly idle and disinterested in getting involved in any form of work.

The fact that is clear behind these figures is that around 12.2 million (1 crore 22 lakh) people of Bangladesh’s population are in this predicament. The government perhaps will be pleased that at least this rate has dropped somewhat from 2022. In 2022 this rate was 40.66 per cent. It is important to find out the answer to the question as to how, then, are these youth surviving? Why is such a large section of a country’s youth not getting the opportunity to be involved in the economy?

In consideration of age, the youth should be the driving force of the economy. Economists refer to the higher number of youth in the population as demographic dividend. Almost 50 per cent of Bangladesh’s population is youth, but 39 per cent of them are having to remain ‘idle’. This is obstructing Bangladesh from reaping the benefits of this dividend.

The question that then arises is, what is the percentage of unemployment in Bangladesh? According to the labour force survey run by BBS towards the end of 2023, the number of unemployed at the end of the October-December quarter stood at 2.35 million (23.5 lakh). This was higher by 40,000 from the previous year. It was said that the rate of unemployment in Bangladesh was 3.3 per cent.

There are questions regarding these figures because the definition used for unemployment is not realistic. But what is noticeable is that year after year there is no increase in employment rates in Bangladesh. According to government statistics, at least 2 million (20 lakh) people enter the job market every year. Of them, around 1.3 million to 1.4 million (13 lakh to 14 lakh) are employed within the country. The rest go overseas on employment. So, for two decades the number of unemployed persons remains between 2.4 million to 2.8 million (24 lakh to 28 lakh). This standstill proves that the new job seekers are not benefitting from the economic growth that is being touted.

As a result of this, a large section of youth is considering leaving the country. This was revealed in a survey conducted in 2023 by BRAC University and Bangladesh Youth Leadership Centre. Among the educated youth in the country, 42 per cent spoke of leaving to go abroad (Banik Barta, 17 November 2023). According to the BBS labour survey of 2022, the number of educated unemployed (with undergrad degrees) stood at around 800,000, that is 12 per cent. In a recent survey of Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS), it was revealed that even three years after passing out from the colleges under the National University, 28 per cent of the students remained unemployed (Prothom Alo, 24 March 2024). The plight of those passing out from other universities is not much better.

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But educated youth are not the only citizens in the country. What about the less educated and those deprived of education? A section of them are going to work overseas by legal means. Another section is going through illegal channels. Many of such aspiring migrants who are seeking to migrate in such a manner, end up dead in the Mediterranean. A significant number of them are Bangladeshis. A Reuters report on 1 March revealed that the number of Bangladeshis seeking asylum in Europe was 40,332. The year before that it had been 33,731.

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This matter of unemployment among the educated youth makes it clear that conventional education has not enabled youth to enter the economy because the opportunities are not being created. We also see that around 41 per cent of the population, aged between 5 and 24, remain outside the conventional educational institutions. This rate is slightly lower than last year, but much higher than 2019. At that time only 29 per cent were outside of educational institutions. In 2020 this was 28 per cent.

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We get scattered information on the increased rate of children, adolescents and youth outside of educational institutions, youth remaining ‘idle’, the lack of employment for educated youth, Bangladeshis leaving the country through illegal channels, but this reveals a picture of the situation prevailing in Bangladesh. The prevailing situation indicates that Bangladesh’s educational institutions are not being able to provide an education that prepares the students to participate in the economy. And more obvious is the fact that the economic policy being followed in Bangladesh is not creating a participatory system, it is not offering job opportunities.

These policies are not falling out of the sky. These are being created and being created through a political process. So these statistics should not be viewed merely as figures. It must be understood why and how these circumstances have been created.

Over the past one and a half decades the main focus of Bangladesh’s economic policy has been growth. This target to achieve GDP growth is ushering in serious danger for the present and the future of Bangladesh. There is much evidence to this end. The increase in disparity in the society is an example of this.

In the area of income and consumption, the difference between 2016 and 2022 reveals that in 2016 the income disparity was 0.482 and in 2022 this stood at 0.499. Consumption disparity in 2016 was 0.324, in 2022 it stood at 0.334. In order to implement this strategy for growth, the government is taking foreign loan, which stand at USD 100 billion. A large section of those who will have to bear the liability of repaying these loans are now children, adolescents, youth.

The lack of concern and effective planning about providing institutional education to the children and adolescents, appropriately educating the youth, attaching them to economic activities, is either indifference about the county’s future or a part of a plan to give this condition a permanent shape. The policies that are being followed not only are keeping the future citizens unprepared and untrained, but is also opening the doors to being dependent on others for workforce in the future. These policies are not falling out of the sky. These are being created and being created through a political process. So these statistics should not be viewed merely as figures. It must be understood why and how these circumstances have been created.

* Ali Riaz is a distinguished professor of the Department of Politics and Government at the Illinois State University in the US, nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and president of the American Institute of Bangladesh Studies.

* This column appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir

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