Opinion | No jobs, no hope: how India and China are grappling with youth crises

Imagine applying for a job with 67,000 openings. You’d assume that with a fairly decent resume, your chances would be quite high. But, as many young people in India’s most populous state of Uttar Pradesh found out in February, all is not what it seems. Vying for those 67,000 openings in the state police department were nearly 4.8 million jobseekers.

It’s a reminder of India’s growing unemployment crisis: a ticking time bomb. And it’s a problem that disproportionately affects young people. The India Employment Report 2024 found that the labour force participation rate for young people aged 15-29 was just 42 per cent, against 62.4 per cent for those aged 30-59 in 2022.
This rate has been declining for youngsters, the report said, and fell sharply from 54 per cent in 2000 – with the drop biggest for the group aged 15–19. The same trend was reflected in the worker population ratio. The message is clear: India must generate more jobs to sustain its economic growth.
India’s manufacturing sector, which many believed would rival China’s, has been a disappointment. In fact, India’s reliance on China has only grown.
Chinese imports have grown 2.3 times faster than India’s total imports over the past 15 years, according to a new report by the Global Trade Research Initiative. Since 2019, India’s exports to China have flattened out at around US$16 billion a year while its Chinese imports grew from US$70 billion to surpass US$101 billion last year, feeding the trade deficit.
Both China and India struggle with youth unemployment. This year, India expects about 13 million young people to enter the job market while China expects nearly 12 million fresh graduates. Mass unemployment, however, is a bigger thorn in India’s side.

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World’s largest population: why it could be a headache for India

World’s largest population: why it could be a headache for India

India’s booming economy is set to grow 8 per cent this year, possibly the fastest in the world, but this has done little to resolve its job crisis – the country just isn’t producing enough to keep up with its needs.

In 2023, according to World Bank data, India’s youth unemployment rate (for ages 15-24) stood at 18 per cent – significantly higher than its immediate neighbours’. Comparatively, Pakistan’s was 10 per cent and Bangladesh’s 12.3 per cent. China fared little better than India, at 15.9 per cent.

With China, the problem isn’t just the lack of jobsgrowing automation is quickly replacing human labour, a situation made worse by its universities churning out millions of graduates every year.
Rife unemployment leaves young graduates vulnerable. Many are forced to accept jobs that are not just less than ideal but downright toxic, with compromises on paid leave or longer hours. They may have to take jobs in unskilled manual labour that have nothing to do with their degrees.
Last year, “job quitting” celebrations made the headlines in China as young people, fed up with long hours and low pay, threw parties to say goodbye to toxic work spaces. But not everyone can afford to quit, even when they badly want a different way of life.

The repercussions of these youth employment challenges in both China and India are now being felt across the world.

For India, the problems are explosive and immediate – and they’re spilling outside its borders. Indians made up the third-largest illegal immigrant population in the US in 2021, according to Pew Research Centre estimates last year. Desperate for jobs, Indian youths are also going to conflict and war zones in search of a better pay cheque.

Indian workers line up to submit registration forms for jobs in Israel during a recruitment drive at the Industrial Training Institute in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, on January 25. Photo: AFP
Israel, for instance, is looking to hire tens of thousands more Indian workers amid a labour shortage exacerbated by the Gaza war; this January, it conducted recruitment drives in the northern Indian states of Uttar Pradesh and Haryana.
In China, youth unemployment issues are proving a slow burn and promising to be chronic. Economists have warned that jobless youths could pose a political risk, resulting in events that could disrupt global supply chains. China’s labour market is also shrinking rapidly, by an estimated 41 million from 2019-2022, a trend economists say could hit prospects for a sustainable recovery.

This economic weakening could have a spillover effect, especially given China’s geopolitical influence in countries in Africa and Latin America, where Chinese investment, finance and trade are critical.

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Why China’s young, disgruntled workers identify with this pink cartoon beaver from South Korea

Why China’s young, disgruntled workers identify with this pink cartoon beaver from South Korea

In both China and India, the pressures of traditional work culture on the young are adding to the challenge. New entrants to the job market are routinely expected to work long hours because hard work is glorified in both cultures. Holidays and time off are seen as frivolous and frowned upon. In spite of the health risks, bosses often subtly encourage 70-hour working weeks and youth burnout is increasingly a problem.
While there are no simple solutions to the unemployment crisis, for policymakers, offering greater incentives to attract foreign investment can be a critical move. India recently announced a goal to secure US$100 billion in foreign direct investment annually. For China too, this is top priority.
Indeed, if governments fail to resolve the unemployment crisis over the next decade, they may well end up facing a mental health crisis on top of it. For young people in China and India, getting that first job remains an uncertain prospect and the stress of it all can leave behind trauma and deep scars. This needs to change to pave the way for a more promising, empowering future.

Kamala Thiagarajan is a freelance journalist based in Madurai, southern India

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