Lately, I've had the chance to research a lot about the state of youth unemployment in our country. This included reading multiple reports released by a number of national and international organisations, articles written by experts from different fields of expertise, as well as excerpts of books by researchers focusing on the various economic and educational aspects of it. While it was clear from before that the problem of youth unemployment is a major issue, only through this deeper research did it become obvious just how big of a problem it truly is.
For example, the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS) estimated youth unemployment rate to be 10.6 percent in its Labour Force Survey 2016-2017, while the overall unemployment rate was less than half of that—4.2 percent. But as Dr Fahmida Khatun and Syed Yusuf Saadat mention in their book, The Ignored Generation: Exploring the Dynamics of Youth Employment in Bangladesh, “The narrow definition of unemployment used by the BBS portrays a disproportionately small unemployed population,” before going on to explain, in detail, why that is the case.
There are many reasons for unemployment being so high among young people. Many are complex economic reasons. And then there are educational reasons also, as according to the previously mentioned survey, unemployment among the more educated sections of young people is higher than their less educated compatriots, a trend that has been on the rise, as suggested by the same survey and by figures from other sources.
However, the statistic that is perhaps most concerning is that 29.8 percent young people are not involved in either education, employment or training (NEET)—that is more than one-fourth of all young people not participating in any form of economic or educational activities. And here is where I'd like to look at things from a different perspective.
Researchers, educationists and other experts have had a lot to say about the economic and educational aspects of why the youth are not participating as much. And all those are extremely important. However, the fact is that it is not only on those two fronts that the youth have been left marginalised. There are other socio-political fields from which the youth have also been left out.
For example, in 2018, the two major demonstrations that we witnessed were both initiated and led by young people—one was to demand the reduction of quota in civil service jobs, and the other to demand increased road safety. And the government's reaction and response to them were telling.
In both cases, the opinions and grievances of the young protesters were not given much, if any, respect, to the extent that the administration wouldn't even listen to them properly before weighing whether those opinions or grievances had any merit. That is why, instead of reducing quota for civil service jobs as suggested by the young protesters, it was whimsically done away with altogether, after trying and failing to ignore them for a long period of time at first. And that is also why such heavy-handed tactics were resorted to against protesters as young as school and college-going children. The administration consequently failed to bring any semblance of safety or order to the roads, in spite of making a number of lofty promises.
The reason I highlight these two movements is because they are part of a deeper problem—which, basically, is this culture of a dismissive attitude on part of successive governments towards the opinions and feelings of our young people, which always express themselves in ways that send the same message: “We know better than you.” Without ever even properly listening to what they have to say.
The only thing that this does is demoralise young people, who have every reason to think that they have absolutely no say in the direction their country is headed, the way their society is structured and functioning, no freedom to develop or express their own thoughts and, ultimately, no control over or ability to shape their own lives. Once they have been given this impression, the only conclusion that they can draw is that they have no stake in their society nor their country. And, naturally, why should they then bother participating in it?
Even our educational institutions, which are now a subject of much discussion, particularly given the non-participation of young people in economic and educational activities, as mentioned earlier, have similarly disenfranchised the youth, by cutting off many of the avenues for them to participate in the decision-making process. For example, the Dhaka University Order, 1973 states that the Senates of the four major public universities—Dhaka University, Jahangirnagar University, Rajshahi University and Chittagong University—should have student representatives, so that issues concerning the larger student bodies within those universities, respectively, can be expressed and addressed.
But in the absence of any election being held in those universities in decades, their Senates have not included any students representing them through such democratic practices. How then can students let the university authorities know the problems and concerns that they have? And without knowing those problems and concerns, how can the authorities expect to solve them?
And this, perhaps, is indicative of a much larger problem. As we witness different sections of society scrambling to figure out what went wrong, and why young people are not participating in the various activities of the state, as well as how to best solve them, what is still missing to an extent is the idea and practice of involving those very young people, whose futures are being discussed and whose lives are at stake.
What is also being missed is the fact that young people, by their very nature, tend to be rebellious, and do not enjoy very much the idea of being dictated to and, in fact, almost never accept the shoving-down-one's-throat attitude. And this isn't necessarily a bad thing. But what this does mean is that we must learn to interact with them better, and be willing to pay enough respect to them to give them a fair hearing, at least when it comes to matters that concern them.
Otherwise, if we continue pushing them out of discussions and decision-making processes, whether they be economic, social or political, it would be naïve at best to expect any change in the lack of youth participation that we currently see, as it is our own policies and cultural attitudes that lie at the very root of it.
Eresh Omar Jamal is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star.
His Twitter handle is: @EreshOmarJamal.