Idle and jobless youth could seriously impede growth in Southeast Asia, dimming the glow of a projected golden age of rapid economic expansion. At the same time, Southeast Asia has an opportunity through its recovery from this pandemic to ride on the trends of global supply chains shifting to the region and the rise of the internet economy. Young people should be at the centre of Post-Covid recovery in Southeast Asia. It is critical to empower youth through education, employment and engagement to become future-ready and emerge stronger from this crisis.
Southeast Asia is a fast-growing region. Its economic growth is expected to average more than 5 per cent per year, and the size of its internet economy is set to reach US$300 billion by 2025. Southeast Asia also had some 80 million households in the consuming class just a few years ago. Now that number is on track to double to 163 million households by 2030. These trends herald Southeast Asia's impending "Golden Age". Attracted by the prospects of our region, Chinese investors and founders are entering the region in droves. Chinese investment into the Southeast Asia's startup ecosystem rose eight-fold in 2019. Geopolitical tensions between the US and China have only accelerated the flight of companies and funds into the region. Sounds like a rosy picture for our region, right?
But, at the same time, unemployment rates have increased in Southeast Asia due to the COVID-19 pandemic and hit young people especially hard. According to International Labour Organisation data, total unemployment in Southeast Asia among youth aged between 15 and 24 is about twice that of the total population. Official unemployment statistics do not tell the full story. Across the Asia-Pacific region, 84.4% of youths, aged between 15 and 24, work in informal employment, compared to 68.6% of adults. During COVID, the axe falls disproportionately on young workers because of both the demographic structure of the Southeast Asian population, and the fact that many of the informal sector jobs that formerly employed young people no longer exist. Country lockdowns have impacted small-scale traders and market vendors, as the decline of manufacturing and tourism has dented the informal businesses that are reliant on these sectors.
Idle youth is a costly problem. Inability to find employment at the outset of one's career creates a sense of vulnerability, uselessness and redundancy, which can keep youth from reaching traditional markers of adulthood. Securing a steady job is tightly correlated with the decision to stop staying with one's parents and start a new family. The costs are therefore not only to youth themselves, but also to society at large. Meanwhile, World Bank and IMF forecasts do not predict quick “V-shaped” recoveries in Southeast Asia. That means high rates of youth unemployment may linger and hurt for years, in terms of lack of savings, loss of aggregate demand and increasing costs for social and remediation services.
In such uncertain times, it is even more imperative to cultivate and prepare youths in Southeast Asia to actively partake in post-COVID recovery, by being part of the solution rather than the problem. Three critical areas for immediate action are in youth education, employment and engagement.
Education: It is crucial to scale-up home learning options – including no-tech and low-tech options, so that Southeast Asia countries with uneven internet infrastructure development can continue to provide education to all its young people. When schools reopen, investments in quality education and skills development must be increased to ensure a generation of young people is not left behind. Post-Covid, a mix of skills mismatch, poor education, and digital advancement stand in the way of lowering youth unemployment. The 2019 e-conomy report by Google and Temasek highlights that talent remains a pressing constraint in Southeast Asia despite all efforts by Internet economy companies to "fill the gap". As digital natives with a long runway ahead in their careers, hungry Southeast Asia youths should be provided greater access to skills upgrading to "thicken" the current thin talent bench in areas that matter the most, such as software development, digital marketing and data science. It is therefore encouraging that ASEAN youth show a deep commitment to upgrade their skills as technology disrupts job markets. In a survey of 56,000 ASEAN youth, 52% of respondents believe they must "update their skills constantly". Only 18% believe their current skills will stay relevant for most of their lives. Education will enable young people to reach their fullest potential, and empower youth to contribute to their respective countries' economic development.
Employment: The longer a young person stays unemployed, the the more he loses his job-related skills and career-related network. A longer period of unemployment is often associated with skill deterioration, causing the young person to remain unemployed no matter the state of the economy. This should and can be avoided by expanding youth employment and internship programs and placing young people in employment or internships as soon as possible. The challenge is therefore to reach millions of young people in Southeast Asia who are unable to make the transition into the workforce and find job or internship placements that meet their qualifications and skill sets. This is where technology can play a vital role. Already, commercial platforms like Glints, Kalibrr and GetLinks provide millennial talent marketplaces across Southeast Asia countries. Governments can accelerate placement by creating jobs and training opportunities on an unprecedented scale while facilitating reskilling and redeployment services. Particular emphasis should be placed on forging partnerships with employers for effective reskilling rather than depending on siloed training institutions, and also forging partnerships with digital platforms to expand access to opportunities to young people who live outside of major cities in Southeast Asia.
Engagement: Young people today don’t only make up a larger portion of the regional population but are also participating more in shaping social movements and discourses. The outbreak of COVID has been matched by an increased sense of solidarity, and we now see more young people volunteering and starting social movements to help the vulnerable in society who have been disproportionately affected. At the same time, young people’s trust in government as well as their confidence in the government’s ability to handle and recover from the outbreak are particularly volatile. In this context, governments can leverage of young people's sense of autonomy and agency by consciously giving youth a voice in policy consultations and support youths in innovating, mobilising, spearheading new solutions for a post-COVID era. In fact, incorporating youths' considerations of environmental, social an economic sustainability into recovery plans will help to ensure that the recovery approach is resilient, adaptable, and applicable to the youthful population of Southeast Asia.
In summary, the current pandemic portends a future in which young people could experience greater socio-economic insecurity and deprivation. Targeted interventions in the three critical areas of education, employment and engagement will safeguard young people's interests and invest in their capabilities, bringing possible long-term benefits to society as a whole. To actualise the role of young people as catalysts for a better tomorrow, young people should be made central in addressing both current and future challenges. After all, people under 30 form more than half the population in ASEAN.