Don’t play games with youth

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By 2017-10-17

By Rathindra Kuruwita

I have been reading Prof. Indralal de Silva's 'Sri Lanka: Re-emergence of Youth Bulge' which enforced my opinion that it would be a disaster if the much talked about labour market liberalization takes place. I mean this Government, comprising leaders brainwashed by neo-liberalism, is most likely to loosen up immigration laws in a bid to attract 'foreign talent'.

For proponents of loosening immigration law, don't really seem to care that the assumption that importing hordes of migrants will help a nation's economy is at best dubious. I mean if we take the United States or Europe, their golden days, were before they opened up their countries to hordes of skilled and unskilled workers, which has now lead to serious social strife between the natives and new comers. The resentment of locals about the migrants is such that all round the world people are voting for political parties that are hard on immigration: for heaven's sake, New Zealand's Labour Party Leader, Jacinda Ardern, who made the party great again after years in the wilderness, a socialist, feminist and anti-immigration.

Youth bulge and implications

The size of the percentage of youth of a nation and its degree of social instability have long interested social scientists, historians and journalists and it has also been on particular interest to the intelligence community determined to see early warning signs of political strains and where they might take place. A CIA report on youth bulge, titled 'A link between demography and instability' states that 'whether or not such strains erupt into regime threatening instability would depend on the ability of the government to achieve constructive mobilization of its youth as well as on other societal factors'. Moreover unhappy and disillusioned youth are also easy to manipulate by external and internal forces for their own agenda. Whenever we had a youth bulge, let's say the 70s, 80s or late 90s, we have faced youth unrest, and this is a factor that policy makers must take into consideration before they think about attracting 'foreign talent' because they will be taking up jobs that would have gone to Sri Lankan youth.

Contrary to what a lot of free market ideologues and their friends at think tanks have been telling us, de Silva insists not only that we don't have a labour shortage, but also that by early 2032, which is only 15 years from now, Sri Lanka will see the reemergence of a significant youth bulge that will last close to 20 years.

In the past decades, Sri Lanka had experienced several youth bulges, for example in 1981, the proportion of youth was 30% (4.4 million), although the volume had dropped to 4.7% by 2012,Indralal, who is Sri Lanka's top demographer states that the youth bulge which will last from 2032 to 2050 might be among Sri Lanka's biggest.

Although live births in Sri Lanka were low during 1985 to 1999 due to several reasons, there has been a spike in birth rates from 2000 to 2014, with 1.8 million births registered between 2010 and 2014 alone. Thus by 2032, the youth population will reach 5.2 million which will remain unchanged till 2047. On the other hand, the total labour force is to increase substantially, from 8.8 million in 2014 to 10.15 in 2032. The question remains whether Sri Lanka will have the GDP growth to absorb the growing youth population and whether we will be capable of ensuring that they will receive a proper education that would ensure that they don't have to engage in unproductive, unhealthy and unskilled employment.

De Silva goes on to warn that 'if a sizeable volume of foreign labour penetrates the Sri Lankan labour market, unemployment among Sri Lankan youth may further increase significantly. This may lead to aggravation of frustration among youth, with the likelihood of culmination in insurrections, as noted in 1987-89 era.' Pretty heavy stuff. However, I personally think that things will be much darker in the coming years as AI and automation would wipe out a significant proportion of jobs, from driving to accounting.

Foreign talent and job creation

By 2050, when our next youth bulge is still on, two thirds of world' population will live in urban areas and the highest urban population growth will take place in the least developed countries. Oh and before I forget, our male to female ratio will turn again during the next youth bulge ensuring that we have a large male youth bulge.

On the other hand, automation will replace an increasing number of human tasks ensuring many people of an uncertain future and fewer opportunities. And having a lot of young men with limited opportunity has always meant trouble. Young men want work, to have an identity, get respect from peers and elders and most of all impress young women and if they can't achieve these things nicely, i.e. by getting god jobs, buying bling and having stable economic prospects, they tend to easily turn to violence to achieve these things.

So given this, it would be disastrous for us to open doors for foreign workers unless we all want some excitement. But then again people like Ranil Wickremesinghe who might sign these agreements will be long dead when things do become 'exciting'.

Rathindra holds an MSc in Strategic Studies from S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, NTU, Singapore, and can be reached via [email protected]

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