Underemployed graduates, ‘timepass’ and the threat of a global demographic crisis



Yeshpal Singh is in his early thirties, his hair already streaked with grey. He sits in a university in the north Indian city of Meerut. Catch him on a good day, and he’ll tell you that he is a PhD physics student with plans to get a job in a laboratory. But most days he looks depressed. He says that his life is just moving along. He has lost interest in his studies. He spends most of his time just doing “timepass” (passing the time).

In Meerut there are tens of thousands of timepass young people. In the 1970s, India was known as the country of the “BA bus conductor”. But BA graduates would cut off your arm these days for a bus conductor job. India is now the country of the MA manual labourer.

As youth and unemployment were discussed by global elites at the World Economic Forum in Davos, the International Labour Organization (ILO) reported that global unemployment increased by 5 million in 2013 alone. High fertility rates in many developing countries in the 1980s and 1990s, and their subsequent decline in the 2000s, created what demographers term a “youth bulge”.

This bulge can be a resource. A large young adult population can generate large savings and reduce a nation’s welfare bill. This demographic dividend effect appears to partly explain the rapid growth of East Asian economies in the 1980s.

But such a dividend will only accrue where educated, unemployed youth can find well-paid and fulfilling work. Since the global recession that began in 2007, countries have, on the whole, found it difficult to create large numbers of formal salaried jobs.

State employment, which used to absorb many graduates in poor countries, is no longer rising, and the economic growth that has occurred even in the major emerging economies of China and India has fallen well short of demand. Young people leaving school and university often lack the social contacts and language skills required to enter the well-paid jobs that are emerging in the private sector.

It is not just a matter of jobs. The demographic dividend will also only work if the wider infrastructural conditions are right. Young adults can find themselves trapped in countries where schooling is of a poor quality, there are few opportunities for training, corruption is endemic, and the wider transport and health infrastructure is crumbling. They have bought into the dream of middle class work. But their degrees are worth very little.

Waiting has become a profession for many young people in south Asia. “Timepass” is also widely evident in Africa and Latin America. According to a recent report by consultantcy firm McKinsey, it is also common across Europe.

The situation of youth across the world is similar to that of Wile E Coyote in the Roadrunner cartoons. Coyote runs over the cliff and he hangs there before falling. Youth are also poised above the precipice. The refusal to work is itself a type of statement – “putting off the inevitable” is how Yeshpal’s parents put it.

But ultimately most graduates have to find some type of work. The problem is therefore one of underemployment, as people are forced into jobs that do not reflect their qualifications or goals and which offer little opportunity for advancement. The ILO report highlights a steep rise in the number of young people involved in informal work.

The social and political implications of the existence of graduate unemployed or underemployed youth are difficult to fathom. Aside from surveys and journalistic conjecture, little has been written on this crucially important topic.

On one hand there is a danger of a demographic disaster, with hoards of frustrated youth attacking their governments and migrating across borders in search of better opportunities elsewhere. Some have read the Arab Spring in this way.

But what is striking in many places is the absence of mass protest. At the ground level, educated underemployed young people are not very often firebrand radicals. Many have become helpers to others in their communities.

They act often as a go-between generation in contexts of social change, explaining educational and employment markets to younger children. Yeshpal has started an adult reading program and a weekly tutorial class for his cousins. Even as it gnaws at the social fabric, mass underemployment is creating of a new generation of community workers.

Tackling graduate unemployment and underemployment requires a dual approach. First of all, governments need to invest in regulating the expansion of universities more carefully to ensure that young people are employable.

Second, governments need to think hard about the wider social environment in which young people are growing up. Problems such as corruption, poor health care and high rates of crime are important in preventing young people from setting up businesses. It is only through concerted social planning that the demographic timebomb can be defused.