Despair for the 'lockdown generation'
Fin and Ploen, a young Thai couple I've known for some time, graduated with bachelor's degrees in Chinese language last year. Their dreams are simple: having jobs, saving some money and travelling the world. But the Covid-19 outbreak that made the lockdown inevitable has shattered their dreams.
Fin, who has had no stable job since graduating, took up a part-time job with a food delivery service during the city lockdown. Ploen worked for a travel firm but was forced to quit two months ago when the tourism sector collapsed. When I met them recently, they looked depressed as the future is so uncertain. The couple are among millions experiencing such trauma.
The International Labour Organisation (ILO) last Wednesday released a report that showed one in every six young workers globally have stopped working during the pandemic, warning that long-term fallout could lead to a "lockdown generation" if governments fail to address the issue.
ILO director-general Guy Ryder said the Covid-19 impact on the economy has hit young people, especially women, harder and faster than any other group, adding "if their talent and energy is sidelined by a lack of opportunity or skills it will damage all our futures and make it much more difficult to rebuild a better, post-Covid economy."
The beginning of the "lockdown generation" in Thailand may have arrived long before the Covid-19 outbreak. The economic slowdown in the past five years has forced many young graduates into insecure jobs with short-term contracts or meagre payment.
And there is glaring inequality in our education system which means children from richer families have better access to education and employment. A number of children from low-income families I have come across say it's difficult to compete with the richer kids -- who can hire tutors, win a place in prestigious universities, obtain higher skills, and have broader job connections through their parents. In other words, the deep inequality in Thai society means children's family backgrounds determine who will be the winners.
Our politics, with a series of coups and street protests, aggravates educational shortfalls in this country.
One activist was of the view that turbulent politics and a frequent change of government cause a lack of continuity and consistency in education policy, and under such circumstances, it's hard to improve the system.
The current government even put a politician with little experience in education at the top of the Education Ministry. Many see the appointment as the return of a political favour, with little regard to public interest. In general, Thai society and leaders concentrate largely on immediate issues like corruption and preparations for an ageing society. They hardly have time to take a look at the increasing vulnerability of young people in this volatile and uncertain world -- where things change at a fast pace and the next crises loom.
Many young people are missing opportunities, while anger and pessimism escalate. They feel some politicians have taken advantage to maintain the status quo during the Covid-19 crisis as the government was sluggish in its response to the pandemic.
What we encounter now is so different from the early 2000s when I graduated. Though Thailand experienced the most gruelling time in the aftermath of the 1997 economic crisis, political stability enabled the market to recover quickly. Graduates could easily find jobs at the time, resulting in a positive perception about life and careers. Many believed that if they were hard-working, and with some talent, their life would be better.
If today is bad, the future could be worse if we take into consideration the Social Situation and Outlook report for the first quarter of this year released last week by the Office of the National Economic and Social Development Council. The report highlights a big concern for a large number of student dropouts in school level and higher education.
Between the 2005 and 2017 academic years, around 20% of students didn't finish secondary school, while 31% and 38% dropped out of high school/vocational schools and universities/colleges, respectively. Poverty is the main reason.
That was before the Covid-19 era. But right now, many poor parents are sharing their hardship in social media, saying they were thinking about getting their kids out of schools because their priority is feeding the family, rather than investing in education.
Imagine what these school dropout children will be like in the next 10 years. They will lack the skills to compete in the future market, while machines will replace unskilled workers. I cannot imagine how they could escape the poverty trap which is becoming more and more serious. In 2019, around 13% of youth aged 15-24 years, numbering 1.2 million, were dropouts who were unemployed. The Covid-19 impact will take away their chances of finding proper jobs for some time.
Yesterday, the Lower House passed the 1.9-trillion-baht stimulus package to address the economic impact of Covid-19. But the packages are about short-term relief measures such as cash handouts to needy families (which won't be enough to cover the cost of their children's education or training programmes), soft loans and household consumption stimulation. There is a lack of particular measures for young students and graduates affected by the outbreak.
If leaders want to tackle the issue, they should start with something simple: put the right man in the right job who will reform education and guarantee a fair chance for all.
It's true the Student Loan Fund offers relief measures by reducing loan interest and suspending repayments. But the fund will not help when it comes to young workers' job losses or the declining quality of education. Young people need equal opportunities and a share in political decision-making. Such a great task requires a political will which I still cannot see.
Paritta Wangkiat is a Bangkok Post columnist.
Paritta Wangkiat is a Bangkok Post columnist.