By 2020, India will become the world’s youngest country in terms of its population. When the certainty of this ‘demographic dividend’ became clear, it was seen as a huge opportunity by economists, academics, think tanks and social scientists, a problem of plenty. As the sheer size of the issue became clearer, and as more data on youth entered the public domain, employers, civil society and the government soon joined the conversation. Over the past decade, this one issue has become arguably one of the most emotive of issues in several Indian policy circles.
What has become apparent, is that the demographic dividend can only be harnessed if young people have the skills to make a positive contribution to the economy. I have spent the past decade at Quest Alliance attempting to enable India’s youth to bridge the gap between opportunities and their immediate reality. I have seen life skills modules in action; techniques that use arts and sports as a foundation for learning; blended learning courses that combine digital self-learning and classroom activities; and more recently mobile learning courseware which allows students to learn anytime, anywhere.
I have attempted to read books from diverse practitioners and academics. I have seen the Ken Robinson TED Talk on how schools kill creativity and what we can do to unleash young people’s potential countless times. While no magic bullet has revealed itself, what I have found is that the truth, as is often the case, is hidden in plain sight. And it’s imperative that as educators, civil society, philanthropists and policymakers, we recognize what needs doing. Two universal truths are emerging and becoming clearer with each passing day. One is an old, old truth and the other is a reflection of the fast-paced change being witnessed around the world today. I’ll discuss these in turn.
1) Hard work has no substitute
The old, old truth first. There really is no substitute for qualities like hard work, determination, grit, perseverance, optimism and delayed gratification. Numerous control studies, research studies and books have pointed to this fact. Somehow in our pursuit of skilling India and measuring outcomes, we seem to have forgotten this perennial truth. The world will change. Books will be replaced by computers, which in turn will be replaced by mobile phones. Mobiles may soon give way to the next disruptive innovation. But it is non-cognitive skills — such as the ability to deal with change — that will stand today’s youth in good stead, and enable them to not just survive but thrive.
The question for us is: what are we doing to ensure that these non-cognitive skills are being given due weight in institutions of all shapes and sizes? How are we building tools to assess how many of these skills our youth are imbibing? What tweaks do we need to make in our curricula to ensure that these skills find their rightful place alongside the technical ones?
2) Engaging with digital is non-negotiable
The second truth is all around us. And it’s hard to miss. The digital revolution has been a long time coming, but now that it has, the pace of change has taken everyone by surprise. Mark Zuckerberg likes to quote three primers for communities to adopt the digital revolution: access, affordability and awareness. I find this a pithy comment that aptly summarizes the second truth we need to face up to.
One of the greatest enablers of success for youth in India, and indeed around the world, is going to be how they are helped with these three primers. Are youth receiving appropriate access to digital technologies that will help them build the requisite skills to stay afloat in an increasingly digital world? Are the latest technologies being made affordable for them to adopt? And are they being made aware of the potential of these digital tools to power their future life and work?
Answers to all three questions are enmeshed with aspects of social justice. Barriers of gender, race, caste, economic status and geography will need to be addressed with equal vigour if young people in India are to be prepared and skilled to thrive in an increasingly digital world. The impact in recent times that the ‘app’ or ‘gig’ economy has had on youth in urban India is testimony to how quickly choices and opportunities for youth employment can change in the 21st Century. The importance for young people to be well-prepared and in a position to make smart choices in an ever-increasing digital world is beyond doubt.
The problems and opportunities facing our youth today have never been more complex nor more exciting at any other point in history. If these are the cornerstones of future success that will enable young people to succeed, to actually act on that knowledge requires hard work, courage, and a steely resolve. Perhaps most of all, it requires collaboration between corporations, foundations, government and civil society. For the sake of our youth we must work together, and we must succeed. There is no other alternative.
Abhijeet Mehta, Associate Director, Quest Alliance
Some of the ways in which we can deepen and accelerate such partnerships will be the topic of my next blog post. This is an adapted version of a piece that originally appeared in The Learner 2017.