By 2020, the average age in India will be 29 and it is set to become the world’s youngest country with 64% of its population falling under the working age bracket.
This demographic potential offers India and its growing economy an unprecedented edge that economists believe could add a significant 2% to the GDP growth rate.
However, countries like the US, South Korea, Japan, China and those in Western Europe have grown rich before growing old. They invested in education and skills, health, empowerment and employment and ensured women joined the workforce, as they were empowered to plan their families.
India is currently enjoying a ‘demographic dividend’, which means, it has a higher labour force than the population dependent on it. While this may appear a reason for blissful complacency, it must be remembered that by the latter half of the century, India will have an increasingly aging population. And yet, the country lacks an adequate social security net for the needs of its people.
However, a demographic disaster looms too. This is caused by low levels of investment in education and health. Currently, the majority of Indian workers – nine out of ten – are in the informal sector, where employment is unsteady, pay is poor and social security is lacking.
Education, especially secondary education for girls, must be prioritised. The gross enrolment ratio for girls at the secondary school level is 80.97% (slightly higher than for boys) but the government cannot rest until that number is 100. The 10% cut in government allocation for the school sector means the push to towards total gross enrolment just got harder.
The country must also generate large scale employment, taking care to ensure more women join the workforce. Concurrently, access to quality higher education must be expedited; currently, a large number of graduates are not considered employable.
Whether India’s youth will be a blessing or a curse – a demographic dividend or a disaster – firmly rests in the hands of the government and the pro-youth policies it implements.