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India Must Redefine ‘Work’ to Survive the Demographic Dividend

It’s time to draw inspiration from our ancient roots.

11/08/2017 8:38 AM IST | Updated 01/09/2017 1:08 PM IST
Hindustan Times via Getty Images

India Foundation, a Delhi-based research centre focused on issues, challenges and opportunities of Indian polity recently hosted a two-day conclave called the Young Thinkers' Meet in Vadodara, Gujarat. The meet was addressed by several leaders from diverse fields, including politics, religion, media, academia and social work who discussed the topic "India—2047" with the participants. The aim was to formulate a vision that India must work towards for the next 30 years.

It is always difficult to look into the future, and especially so in times like the one we live in where rapid technological progress and cultural transformations make predicting even a few years into the future a futile exercise. Yet, for the nation to progress, a vision for the future is integral. This piece attempts to highlight a transformative idea in one important sphere that was discussed during the meet—employment.

The challenge

India had a population of 121 crore people in 2011 according to the Census, and is slated to have a population of about 170 crore people in 2047. According to data by the Labour Ministry 10 lakh new people enter the labour market every month. The Asia-Pacific Human Development Report released by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) shows that between 1991 and 2013, the size of the "working age" population increased by 30 crores. Over the same period India was able to create just 14 crore jobs, which means that less than half the population entering the workforce was able to find employment.

India will have to use a multi-pronged approach that focuses on job creation but also lays emphasis on transforming what's thought of as employment and how it's linked to a feeling of self-worth.

This shortage of jobs is slated to get worse as automation, artificial intelligence and other technologies reduce the need for human labour in most industries. The government has given a push to employment generation through programs like Make In India that incentivise the setting up of industries, while schemes like MUDRA yojana and Startup India aim to provide opportunities for self-employment. The internet has also opened up avenues for individuals to become creators and units of production without the need of formal employment from companies, and individuals can work as freelancers with limited capital if they have the requisite skill sets. These attempts will surely boost job creation, yet most people intuitively recognise that there will never be enough jobs to cater to India's massive population. Widespread unemployment is a crisis waiting to happen as the demographic dividend enters the working age group. Addressing this challenge will require a paradigm shift in thinking and redefining what "work" and "employment" mean.

The solution

The first step to addressing the issue is to recognise that unemployment will be one of the biggest challenges India faces in the coming years. The root cause of this challenge would be India's massive population. This means that as a nation we must move beyond the historical blunders of forced sterilisations—the legacy left behind by Sanjay Gandhi—and restart the conversation on population control. We must develop a population policy that lowers the country's population growth rate through a combination of measures like education, availability of contraceptives, removal of cultural stigma surrounding birth control and the use of incentives.

If we have foresight and plan towards it, India will likely produce enough to meet everyone's survival needs in 2047, but we are unlikely to produce enough to meet everyone's desires.

Even with a reduced population growth rate though, India will have a massive unemployment crisis solely due to the fact that a huge population has already been born that will enter the workforce in the next two decades. This poses a challenge that will not be an easy one to address. It's also unlikely that the problem can be addressed solely through an emphasis on job creation. India will have to use a multi-pronged approach that focuses on job creation but also lays emphasis on transforming what's thought of as employment and how it's linked to a feeling of self-worth. India's culture must fundamentally be transformed from what it is heading towards to what it used to be historically.

A consumerist society, like those prevalent in Western nations, by its very nature links a person's self-worth to what they own and consume. In such a society it becomes essential for an individual to find a well-paying job for them to be considered "successful". If a person fails to find remunerative employment their status in society diminishes. This diminished self-worth is often a more pressing consequence of unemployment than survival. If we have foresight and plan towards it, India will likely produce enough to meet everyone's survival needs in 2047, but we are unlikely to produce enough to meet everyone's desires. This means that we must transform our societal and cultural value system to address the challenge of unemployment. If we fail to do so, we will be faced with a massive cadre of unemployed and dissatisfied youth in the near future that is sure to be detrimental to the nation instead of proving to be a dividend.

We must ensure that society stops emphasising consumerism and instead values learning, knowledge, self-actualisation, attainment in arts and culture, social service and volunteer work even when it is not economically remunerative.

We must ensure that society stops emphasising consumerism and instead values learning, knowledge, self-actualisation, attainment in arts and culture, social service and volunteer work even when it is not economically remunerative. The history and ancient culture of India can help facilitate such a transformation. Our society has always held great regard for sages who are engaged in pursuits of self-realisation but aren't contributors to economic activity. Our traditional gurukul system also emphasised knowledge and learning without regard to how that knowledge could be monetised. It might be time for India to transition back to the way of thinking that has respected values other than material wealth and consumerism if we want to survive the challenge that our massive population will present.

This piece is a compilation of ideas I developed during the Young Thinkers' Meet and draws heavily from the thoughts expressed by the speakers and other participants there. Special thanks to Shri Ram Madhav, National General Secretary, BJP; Shri Swapan Dasgupta, eminent journalist and MP, Rajya Sabha; Shri Shaurya Doval, Director, India Foundation; Major General Dhruv C. Katoch, Director, India Foundation; Shri Prafulla Ketkar, Editor, Organizer; and the entire team at India Foundation.

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