Generation pandemic: India’s youth face jobless future

After six months of working the graveyard shift at a call centre in the city of Pune, a three-hour drive from India’s financial capital Mumbai, Rohit Mhatre* had had enough. The 23-year-old resigned in March, hoping to land another job that would allow him to have a social life.

His timing could not have been worse.

Weeks later, India went into a strict, nationwide lockdown to stop the spread of the coronavirus outbreak. The few jobs open to those with little experience and straight out of college dried up. Mhatre’s father’s stall selling breakfast to city commuters also had to close. Suddenly, the family was left with no income.

“There’s just no jobs out there. It’s difficult to know what to do,” he told Al Jazeera by phone, from his ancestral village in Maharashtra, where he and his family have relocated to avoid the city’s expensive living costs. “Many of my friends are in the same boat. We spend all day scrolling through online job sites”.

Mhatre’s predicament highlights one of India’s biggest economic problems: young people who have invested in higher education are finding it increasingly hard to find work, potentially affecting their future prospects and potentially those of future generations. The pandemic is making this issue all the more acute.

Globally, young workers tend to occupy low-skilled, entry-level positions. Firms have invested relatively little on training them. As a result, employers often find it relatively easy to sacrifice these jobs when times are tough.

Young people are also overrepresented in sectors like retail, hospitality and tourism, which have been badly hit by policies enforcing social distancing, according to the Atlantic Council think-tank.

In May, the International Labour Organization (ILO) warned that COVID-19’s economic fallout could “leave many young people behind”, permanently excluding them from the job market. The virus’s legacy could be with us “for decades”, it said.

The ILO also says the world’s “youth are being disproportionately affected by the pandemic”. In its latest report, it estimates that more than one in six young people – roughly 17 percent – have lost their jobs since it began.

In India, the proportion of young workers affected by the crisis appears to be even higher.

About 41 percent of people aged between 15-29 were out of work in May, according to data compiled by the Centre for Monitoring the Indian Economy (CMIE). That is up from 17.3 percent in 2018-19.

An estimated 27 million people between the ages of 20 and 30 lost their jobs in April, the CMIE says.

“The long-term impact of the pandemic will be very severe and take a long time to fix,” Mahesh Vyas, the chief executive officer of the CMIE told Al Jazeera. “Young people will not be able to save for the future and that affects the next generation too”.

India’s shrinking jobs market means it will be increasingly tough for the 1.3 million Indians joining the workforce each month, as per World Bank estimates.

Crucially, the pandemic has also jeopardised India’s ability to capitalise on a unique opportunity; it has the world’s largest youth population.

Until 2040, the proportion of working-age people in India is expected to outweigh the number of their dependents (children and older people), a phenomenon that economists refer to as a “demographic dividend”. But with the pandemic causing enormous economic damage, analysts warn that India is likely to miss out on this benefit.

“The economy was already slowing down severely, and now the lockdown has made everything worse,” says the CMIE’s Vyas. “If the young generation is not given jobs, then the demographic dividend will become a demographic demon.”

Stuck in dead-end jobs, choices curtailed

Even before the pandemic, India was one of the hardest places to be a young job seeker. Though the country’s working-age population is growing, the proportion of young workers active in the labour market is falling, according to the Reserve Bank of India.

Analysts say that the labour surplus created by the pandemic will now worsen their already bleak employment prospects.

“Young people will be more willing to accept less pay and poor working conditions, just because they’re so desperate to make a living,” Sabina Dewan, executive director of and senior fellow at the New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research, told Al Jazeera. By accepting whatever job they can get and not necessarily one that suits their education or skills, their potential goes unused, she added. “This sets us back hugely in terms of realising any portion of the demographic dividend,” said Dewan.

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