Demographic dividend: Are we letting it pass us by?
We have the chance to reap the benefits of demographic dividends until 2045 but so far we are doing nothing.
Bangladesh is wasting its once-in-a-lifetime window of demographic dividend -- the economic growth potential that can result from a peak in working-age people -- due to its inability to create jobs.
Currently, 65.6 percent of the population of 16.51 crore is of working age -- 15 to 64 -- according to the Population and Housing Census 2022.
In theory, when there are growing numbers of people in the workforce relative to the number of dependents, the chances for swift economic growth are higher as more people have the potential to be productive and contribute to the economy.
It is argued that the "economic miracles" seen by Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan between the early 1960s and 1990s and the economic boom witnessed by Ireland in the 1990s were down to demographic dividend.
In Bangladesh, the window opened during the mid-noughties -- thanks to low fertility and mortality rates and the workforce having fewer dependents -- and is expected to slam shut by 2045.
But it appears the country is struggling to tap this favourable demographic profile and grow into an economic powerhouse.
About a third of the youth in Bangladesh are not engaged in employment, education and training, according to Hossain Zillur Rahman, chairman of Brac.
"With two dimensions, we can see how much of the demographic dividends the country is reaping."
The two dimensions are: how many youths are being turned into skilled manpower through quality education and how many skilled youths are being absorbed into remunerative employment.
Zillur, also the executive chairman of Power and Participation Research Centre, said the country's two economic growth drivers, the garment sector and manpower exports, are based on cheap labour.
"Young Bangladeshis are trying [to get employed] on their own but are not getting support from the system," Zillur said, adding that about 87 percent are engaged in informal employment.
The unemployment rate is higher -- 47 percent -- among the educated, according to the 2016 Labour Force Survey by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS).
Unemployment among university graduates is about 10 percent.
At least 66 percent of graduates from colleges affiliated with the National University are not getting jobs, according to a 2021 survey by the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies.
Every year, 20 lakh people are added to the labour force but jobs are not created in that proportion, resulting in a large portion remaining unemployed, BBS said.
For at least the next 20 years, there will be huge manpower, said Aminul Haque, professor at Dhaka University's Department of Population Sciences.
"But will they be engaged in employment and contribute to the GDP? If not, it will be a burden for the state," he said, while calling for investment in vocational and technical education, and expanding the service sectors.
To get the maximum and quality benefits from the window of demographic dividend, substantial investment in the health and education sector is needed, said Selim Raihan, professor of economics at the University of Dhaka.
"But our investment is very insignificant and it is not possible to get the maximum benefits and move forward with it. It seems we are happy with the low-end benefits," Raihan added.
Developing a technical generation is a process and takes time, said Ubaidur Rob, country director of Population Council, a New York-based non-governmental organisation that conducts research to address critical health and development issues.
Rob went on to urge the government to invest heavily in technical education.
"The other point is that we have to focus on job-oriented education. We have the chance to reap the benefits of demographic dividends until 2045 but so far we are doing nothing," he added.
The government, albeit late, has formulated the National Employment Policy 2022 identifying a number of challenges, including measures that hinder the skilled-workforce generation.
The policy aims to create about 30 million new jobs by 2030 and take unemployment to the lowest level by 2041, according to a gazette notification of July 14.
The policy mentions that the number of unemployed and "disguised unemployed" people is 2.7 million and 12.5 million and that more than 60 million people are capable of work.