Instilling a strong work ethic early in life
A recent survey by the globally acclaimed social services organisation Caritas Internationalis suggested that in the 2015-16 fiscal year, an estimated 25 percent of the 15-29 age group in Bangladesh were neither in education nor employed in any sort of formal economic activity. The World Bank puts the youth unemployment figure (15-24 age group) at an estimated 11 percent of the total Bangladeshi population in 2016. Whilst these are numbers based on purely statistical analysis, it sheds light on various facets of Bangladeshi society. It tells us that in no uncertain terms, addressing youth unemployment in the country requires a two-pronged approach. On one side, commentators are rightly holding the government accountable to generate enhanced youth-based human capital growth. However, on the other side, we also need to look at non-public policy factors which are preventing individuals in Bangladesh from being employed.
By most measures, unemployment is defined as occurring when a person is actively searching for work, but is unable to find work. As such, if and when a person is willing and able to work, but does not get work, he or she is termed as unemployed. Interestingly, the new branch of behavioural economics amalgamates sociological patterns, human psychology, traditional economics and cognitive factors to study the causes of unemployment. Therefore, behavioural economics focuses on the willingness of a person to work, rather than their ability to do so. And it is here where Bangladesh needs to take a closer look.
In a society such as ours, the traditional sense in upper-middle class families is that parents should bear the financial responsibilities of their children, up until the latter is able to settle down. For those fortunate enough to access tertiary education, students are rarely encouraged to search for jobs unless they finish their degrees. Suffice it to say, on a high number of occasions, students are encouraged to complete their bachelors and masters degrees, and then only to look for jobs. As such, in reality, a high proportion of upper-middle class youth do not actively search for work until the average graduation age of 23-25. Culturally, student jobs and internships are restricted to a growing, but unequivocally low number of organisations in Dhaka. Volunteering opportunities are developing through foundations like Footsteps and Green Channel, but these remain restricted to a specific social group. As such, youth unemployment amongst recent graduates hovers around an ever-growing 11 percent in Bangladesh.
Behavioural sciences indicate that because of the reluctance of soon-to-be graduates caused not only by the unavailability of student jobs, but also by a culture of dependence on guardians, youth unemployment figures are rising at an increasing rate. Essentially, to put it into a different context, imagine Canada and how it regularly promotes student jobs. At the same time, culturally, the youth are encouraged to start partaking in job searches from their teenage years, thereby fostering an environment of a quid-pro quo approach by the state, organisations and individuals. This cognitive phenomenon of the Bangladeshi mindset has sadly resulted in an approach of study first, work later, rather than study and work simultaneously.
The above case however does not cater to the vast majority of the country. Lower middle class to the lower class of the country surely does not operate in the same way as those in the upper echelons of society do. Priorities are different. Needs are drastically dissimilar. Traditional economists highlight how individuals base their choices on the idea of rationality, thereby constructing decisions on whether partaking in an economic activity would yield greater satisfaction than the second alternative. For example, people get motivated to look for jobs if nationwide wage levels are increased. Therefore, it is no surprise to witness people in the lower middle class to the lower class of the population prioritising monetary benefits over, say, prestige or reputation. It makes perfect sense. However, behavioural economists further suggest that the longevity of being unemployed, either due to a lack of vocational skills as present amongst the lower stratums of society (occupational immobility) or the unwillingness to move to a different part of the country (geographical immobility), creates an intense relationship between job expectancy and search intensity. Imagine this. Would a technician in a factory be willing and able to transfer skills to a growing IT sector? Is there any state-level forum to ensure this transition of skills or training? Would the technician want to move from Dhaka to Sylhet? Would the technician have faith in himself to even apply for such a job? This unfortunately creates a scenario where the youth cannot reconfigure their basic educational attainments, monetary and non-monetary aims and desired geographical needs with proposed jobs. Furthermore, lack of jobs further deters people to stop looking for jobs themselves, cultivating an environment of unease.
Whilst the government has the fundamental responsibility to ensure that the youth of Bangladesh get access to quality training, education and healthcare, the notions of behavioural economics point to a culture of dependence as a key instigator, if not a cause, of youth unemployment. Ironically, unwillingness to work as seen in many Bangladeshi households should in theory bring youth unemployment rate down. Yet, numbers and statistics remain complicated, and it is here where both traditional economists and behavioural scientists tend to have problems. Whether Bangladesh has a youth unemployment rate of 11 percent, or whether it is more or less, is something to which the common man has no answer. Yet, it is visible to the naked eye that prospective groups of young Bangladeshis are unable to activate their full potential in the workforce.
Bangladeshis are hardworking people. We tend to thrive under pressure. High levels of foreign remittance and a resilient RMG sector are a testament to this. However, the success of the Bangladeshi economy is based on a need for economic survival. But in order to achieve the spirit of success, the youth of the country must be encouraged and motivated so as to increase innovation and reduce total youth unemployment levels in the country. Starting from our homes, we need to be encouraging our children to participate in further volunteer programmes and small-scale jobs, so as to reduce the culture of dependence. Education side-by-side with experience is a tried and tested formula, which we need to initiate. The state has a key role, but households do too.
However much we celebrate the success of the Bangladeshi economy, and mind you, we should, basing an entire economy on two or three sectors is fundamentally unsustainable. Building people and building an environment to encourage people to work has to be prioritised. The long-term success of this country depends on its youth. Let us ensure that collectively we can create a holistic environment to ensure large-scale human capital growth.
The writer is a fourth year undergraduate student of economics and international relations at the University of Toronto.
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