Global unemployment among youth is about 13 percent and the future of employment is in dire need of attention from political and business leaders. This was the prelude to an intense discussion organized by the Global Shapers, an initiative of the World Economic Forum, where I was a panelist. The discussion was part of their effort called 'Shaping Davos'. Be it Azerbaijan Hungary, Mexico or India, many countries are staring at a serious crisis of employment, not sometime in the future, but right here and now. For India, the imperative is to provide gainful employment to a large workforce that will add 1 million new people every month, for the next 20 years. Kuwait faces a similar 'youth bulge', compounded by the problem of unemployment rising with the level of education. Hungary is losing its best talent to 'permanent' brain drain.
But underneath their cultural nuances, the countries represented on the panel are grappling with the same issue - that of addressing an archaic and inadequate education system, and encouraging entrepreneurship to support the job requirement of the future. These are clearly the top two areas deserving executive attention.
The discussions on education reforms and the need for nurturing entrepreneurship have been on for decades. Unfortunately, the disparity between thought and action has perpetuated a paradigm that is no longer relevant to the aspirations of the millennials. The education system in many countries continues to value rote learning, rigid structures and conformist solutions over learning by doing, creative thinking and problem solving. One panelist observed that we are "busy creating solutions in the dark, without figuring out if they are relevant to the needs of today's youth." For instance, millennials have different aspirations from its preceding generations. For millennials, the true purpose of life is not to amass material wealth but to unleash their personal potential. So today we need to recalibrate the metrics of measuring educational success to include curiosity, creativity, thinking, empathy, collaboration and innovation. We also need to build education systems which promote lifelong learning.
Building entrepreneurship is more about creating the right culture than about providing infrastructure, systems and skills; many Governments are doing a commendable job with the latter and even private entities are setting up 'maker spaces'. It was the unanimous opinion of the panelists that the entrepreneurial spirit is a victim of culture and attitude - stability over flux, assured returns over unknown rewards, certainty over experimentation. But the biggest concern is the stigma attached to failure. One panelist quoted a popular saying that reflects the Hungarian attitude to any admission of ignorance, which goes somewhat like this, "If you stay silent you appear smarter."
We have to strike at the roots of such attitudes. A fellow speaker shared an interesting viewpoint acquired through experience: he said the antidote to fear of failure is extreme optimism, which is born when we instill resistance, persistence, and self-efficacy among young people. And the best way to do this is to connect them with role models they can identify with - typically people from their community or social milieu that they look up to.
Another point, is the need to improve the access to education and jobs for women. In India, for instance, the number of women in the rural workforce have been falling from 49% in 2005 to 36% in 2012. Hungary might sport better figures, but male dominance is very much the norm in the workplace. Gender inequality at school and work is a universal malaise that needs urgent attention.
So, who should be accountable for reforms in education? Governments no doubt, and industry to an extent. However, citizens also have a role to play - as students, parents, teachers, learners, and employers at different stages of life. They must take some responsibility for changing it. For instance, as employers, what is the criteria on which we recruit, merely good grades or on skills and merit?
These are monumental changes and difficult to implement. Finding the right direction is the most important part. Then we need to support this with the right policies, the right resources and the right execution. Here, technology can play a useful role by making education accessible to all, through mobile devices, and thus lowering the cost of education. Technology will also create the jobs of the future, and enable people to excel in them. With automation taking over an increasing number of mechanical jobs, technology will prepare the workforce to unlearn old skills and learn new ones. In doing so, it will force people to reimagine 'work'. That's a definite silver lining in the future of employment.