August 11, 2016 11:00 pm JST
Commentary

Nicholas Rosellini -- Youth can power Asia's next development miracle

High school girls in Bangkok. © Getty Images

More than half of the world's young people today live in Asia. Roughly 68 of every 100 people in Asia and the Pacific are presently of working age. It is a region facing up to the challenges of poverty and climate change, but brimming with economic dynamism with a youthful workforce to deliver on unfulfilled potential.

What is more, nearly a billion people in Asia are below the age of 15. This means that by 2045, the region will have more working-age people, and fewer older and younger dependents, than at any point in its history. Thereafter, the size of the working population will gradually decline as a result of shrinking family sizes of the past two decades.

This "youth bulge" offers us a unique opportunity to lift millions more out of poverty and its attendant miseries, and trigger gains in human development across the region.

The equation is simple: When countries have a greater share of people who can work, they have the potential to transform their societies. Greater prosperity, far from being an end in itself, can ensure longer and healthier lives, access to education, human rights and dignity -- the cornerstones of human wellbeing.

Those Asian economies that have already experienced this "demographic dividend" show the tremendous improvements in living standards that can accrue from large working-age populations.

In the past three decades, the share of China's working-age population grew from 56% to a peak of 74% in 2010.

Over this period, the country enjoyed stellar economic growth rates -- double-digit figures for most years, and China's manufacturing and trade with the rest of the world took off as millions of workers entered the labor force. Between 1981 and 2012, China lifted more people out of poverty than anywhere else in the world, moving into the ranks of "middle income nations" and accounting for three quarters of global poverty reduction.

Japan enjoyed its own "miracle" of growth between 1950 and 1970, when its economically active population was large. Having reached higher levels of income during its most productive years, Japan is now better positioned to manage an aging population.

This demographic dividend is far from a dead certainty, however.

Underlying high rates of youth joblessness, young people's estrangement from national policy discussions, the lack of political and social representation are all realities in Asia that offer a glimpse into the abyss of failing policies that the region must emerge from.

Half of the world's unemployed young people reside in the Asia-Pacific region.

Youth in the region are five to seven times more likely to be unemployed than their older counterparts at the same level of education, according to research by the United Nations Development Programme. And an astonishing one-third of youth in the region -- around 220 million -- are neither in school nor at work.

This is true for one in four young Bangladeshis, Indians, Indonesians and Samoans. Directionless, unable to start adult lives, they end up frustrated, their enormous energy and enthusiasm thwarted. Unmet youth expectations will likely weaken social cohesion and stability in a region that is already home to half of the world's conflicts.

Glass ceiling

Asia's ability to fully realize the demographic dividend continues to be limited by its gender divide.

Women's access to education and participation in the labor force remain stubbornly low. In South Asia, women earn a full third less than their male counterparts -- the highest gender pay gap compared to other regions.

We will not attain a demographic dividend if we continue to do too little for the health, education and well-being of women, who constitute more than half of the region's population.

The next wave of development gains, as envisioned by the Sustainable Development Goals adopted at the United Nations in 2015, must address the needs of those left behind, as society cannot reach its potential if young people are excluded from participating in, contributing to, and benefiting from development.

These are big issues and our solutions must be equally bold. In an effort to help developing countries harness this youth potential, UNDP's Asia Pacific Human Development Report for 2016, issued in April, examines these demographic trends and sets out clear policy directions that governments can harmonize with their national development plans and strategies.

As India recently did for its 12th Five-Year Plan (2012-2017), countries can guide their investments in education, skills training, health, job creation and social protection based on these emerging demographic trends.

Many young people stumble in the transition from school to work because of a skills mismatch that can be remedied with vocational training targeted at rapidly expanding job markets. In Samoa, we're working with the government on a "second chance education" program premised on vocational training for young people who have dropped out of school.

Business incubators to boost microenterprises have emerged as a popular means of encouraging entrepreneurship in east and northeast Asia. They are premised on the idea that young people have the energy and the ideas to create the jobs they need.

In Mongolia, for example, business startups are part of a national program on youth development. In China, India and other countries in East Asia, over 2,000 such initiatives are poised to change the traditional routes to job creation.

With the great majority of Asia's peak-era workforce still in their early years, now is the time to invest in interventions that will harness their potential. In not doing enough to ride this wave, we risk losing the most potent inter-generational opportunity we have had in ensuring the well-being of one half of humanity.

Nicholas Rosellini is deputy regional director for Asia and the Pacific at the United Nations Development Programme and director of the agency's Bangkok regional hub.

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