India is currently at the cusp of an opportunity, where we can recover well and regain our lost glory. For that our youth would have to rediscover their productive intent, which is unfortunately lost in the zeitgeist of lack of boredom and excessive parental protection
In the last columns, we discussed how India, even as early as 200 BC, used to account for more than one third of the global GDP, but was brought down to obscurity during the British era through a systematic predatory process. We are on a tiring and long journey towards recovery. The curse of our large population has turned around to be a blessing, where we now have a low dependency ratio, where a larger working age population supports a smaller dependent population. However, even with this advantage, our recovery depends not only on productive avenues being created by the government or private sector, but also on our youth’s intent of being productive. Unfortunately, this productive intent is blunt as of now, because of the new age youth psychographics including a safety net created by parents—emotionally and financially—and the challenges created by new information and entertainment technologies. Though a worldwide problem, for India the ramifications are larger—because we neither have time nor resources on our side. Hence, putting our youth back on the productive rails is a ‘do or die’ situation for us.
Other nations who have faced a similar challenge have dealt with it in multiple ways. For example, in most Western countries, it is taken for granted that individuals come of age by the time they cross 18 years. They move out of their parent’s homes, take independent decisions, own up responsibilities and get engaged with work—whether part time or full time. Social fabric is tuned towards this, and questions are raised, if parents are over protective beyond a certain age. This plays a great role in inculcating the productive intent and values right at the start of the working age. Then there are countries like Singapore and Israel, which are at the cusp of Eastern and Western cultures. These countries have what is known as conscription, or mandatory military service, where all citizens once reaching a certain age must sign up to serve their country. It is almost like a right of passage for its youth, providing greater exposure to different kinds of people, locations and skills. Of course, though there are advantages of inculcating national pride and security in young people, from a larger economic perspective, this national service teaches them how to solve problem, work with different people, and build networks. These skills are all imperative to creating or working in an entrepreneurial business, according to Dan Senor and Saul Singer, authors of, ‘Start-Up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle’.
However, I would not argue for both these practices for India, because our social and demographic fabrics are different. Having missed the industrial revolution, we belong to a nation with deep family bonds, due to our agrarian roots. Our parents like their children to be with them, even after their marriages. It provides them comfort and a much needed social security, where children take care of them in their old ages rather than ploughing their own individual furrows. As far as mandatory national service is concerned, being a nation of large population, it would be almost impossible for us to support, if our entire youth were to adopt military service.
These practices not being applicable to India, makes our path even more complex and unique. A solution to this is both critical and urgent because for the next two decades, 10 million youth would have to be employed every year. Augmenting this challenge is our industries perennially complaining about majority of the youth not being industry worthy. Also owing to our legacy interest in technical skills, we automatically assume that the solution to this problem is in ensuring our youth have better hard or domain skills. Hence, we put our might behind solutions catering to this, through various policies and programmes. However, interestingly, according to the World Economic Forum, ‘Future of Jobs’ report, much more than hard domain skills what matters more are social skills like creativity, emotional intelligence, critical thinking, learnability and people management. According to this report, most companies understand that what educational institutions provide is just a foundation for domain skills and hence invest much resources in retraining. However, if these students come without the social skills, then this retraining itself becomes tougher, because then they would not be able to unlearn and relearn. With the right social skills, they come with the right attitudes, helping them absorb, adapt and assimilate easily. In such a context, our challenge is redefined—our youth would regain the productive intent not by force feeding them on domain skills, but through an absorption of social skills.
Hardline measures of policies and programmes might not work entirely, since majority youth might not have the right inclination or incentives to immerse themselves in something that seem to be boring, while entertainment is at their fingertips
This is easier said than done. As we discussed earlier, since the youth of today are devoid of the twin challenges of boredom and family pressure, majority do not have any urgent inclination to find a livelihood or learning a craft. Though they realise that acquiring right skills are important, they still prefer their mobile phones and social media, since those are easier to access and better entertaining. In such a case, traditional measures and conventional wisdom might not work. More we try to skill them and equip them, the more they recoil back. However, soft nudges provided with the right incentives can be a step in the right direction, where we prescribe a bitter pill such as social skilling, with a sweet coating. Catering in the pretext of fun, entertainment and competition, but covertly providing them with future oriented skills is what is going to help us.
In fact, my organisation had earlier attempted something similar in conjunction with the Government of Karnataka. It was called ‘social startups’. The question that we addressed was rather simple. How do we enable our youth to acquire valuable social skills, at the same time enable them to participate in the nation building process? It was devised as a small game, where youth assemble a team of 4 to 5 members and select a rather small issue that is bothering them in a two-km vicinity in order to produce a measurable impact within one weekend. Keeping the issue small and timeline short, we have understood, help in keeping interest level high, while inertia the lowest for our attention deficit generation. For example, the issue that they select could be a garbage problem near their homes or helping uneducated labourer kids near their college. A two-km vicinity ensures that the problem is indeed something that affects them personally, while measurable impact helps in results not getting lost in verbiage or adjectives.
We have found that the moment our youth is encouraged to step out of the clutches of social media and parental comfort zones to real life situations through sweet pills of fun and competition, they tend to absorb social skills of team work, creativity, learnability and result orientation in an unconscious manner. This ultimately enables them to be industry worthy and more competitive in their work places. At the same time, we also found that scalability is indeed an issue, and it would not succeed, unless a national agency throws its weight behind it. However, as our youth become industry worthy, they understand that they can make a difference when they come out of their cocoons, our nation gets built.
As we discussed in the series of three columns, India is currently at the cusp of an opportunity, where we can recover well and regain our lost glory. However, for that our youth would have to rediscover their productive intent, which is unfortunately lost in the zeitgeist of lack of boredom and excessive parental protection. From an industry point of view, they look at adequate social skills rather than hard core domain skills that can be easily trained, as key in employability. Hardline measures of policies and programmes might not work entirely, since majority youth might not have the right inclination or incentives to immerse themselves in something that seem to be boring, while entertainment is at their fingertips. However, soft nudges like the social start up programme, where they undertake a small, fun weekend programme on an issue that affects them personally, would enable them to absorb the most important social skills, while nation is built ground up. Thus we reclaim our lost glory.
(The writer is an acknowledged leadership thinker from the Harvard and LSE. He was a contributing editor for ‘Forbes’ and ‘Economic Times’)