The power, possibilities of youth

Thomas Friedman / The New York Times /

NEW DELHI —

It's hard to escape a visit to India without someone asking you to compare it to China. This visit was no exception, but I think it's more revealing to widen the aperture and compare India, China and Egypt.

India has a weak central government but a really strong civil society, bubbling with elections and associations at every level. China has a muscular central government but a weak civil society, yet one that is clearly straining to express itself more. Egypt, alas, has a weak government and a very weak civil society, one that was suppressed for 50 years, denied real elections and, therefore, is easy prey to have its revolution diverted by the one group that could organize, the Muslim Brotherhood, in the one free space, the mosque. But there is one thing all three have in common: gigantic youth bulges under the age of 30, increasingly connected by technology but very unevenly educated.

My view: Of these three, the one that will thrive the most in the 21st century will be the one that is most successful at converting its youth bulge into a “demographic dividend” that keeps paying off every decade, as opposed to a “demographic bomb” that keeps going off every decade. That will be the society that provides more of its youth with the education, jobs and voice they seek to realize their full potential.

This race is about “who can enable and inspire more of its youth to help build broad societal prosperity,” argues Dov Seidman, the author of “How” and CEO of LRN, which has an operating center in India. “And that's all about leaders, parents and teachers creating environments where young people can be on a quest, not just for a job, but for a career — for a better life that doesn't just surpass but far surpasses their parents.” Countries that fail to do that will have a youth bulge that is not only unemployed but unemployable, he argued. “They will be disconnected in a connected world, despairing as they watch others build and realize their potential and curiosity.”

If your country has either a strong government or a strong civil society, it has the ability to rise to this challenge. If it has neither, it will have real problems, which is why Egypt is struggling. China leads in providing its youth bulge with education, infrastructure and jobs, but lags in unleashing freedom and curiosity. India is the most intriguing case — if it can get its governance and corruption under control.

“India today has 560 million young people under the age of 25 and 225 million between the ages of 10 and 19,” explained Shashi Tharoor, India's minister of state for human resource development. “So for the next 40 years we should have a youthful working-age population” at a time when China and the broad industrialized world is aging.

According to Tharoor, the average age in China today is around 38, whereas in India it's around 28. In 20 years, that gap will be much larger. So this could be a huge demographic dividend — “provided that we can educate our youth — offering vocational training to some and university to others to equip them to take advantage of what the 21st-century global economy offers,” said Tharoor. “If we get it right, India becomes the workhorse of the world. If we get it wrong, there is nothing worse than unemployable, frustrated” youth.

So there is now a huge push here to lure poor kids into school. India runs the world's biggest midday lunch program, serving 250 million free school lunches each day. It's also doubled its number of Indian Institutes of Technology, from eight to 16, and is planning 14 new universities for innovation and research.

But this will all be for naught without better governance, argues Gurcharan Das, the former CEO of Procter & Gamble India, whose latest book is “India Grows at Night: A Liberal Case for a Strong State.” “The aspirational India has no one to vote for, because no one is talking the language of public goods. Why should it take us 15 years to get justice in the courts or 12 years to build a road? The gap between ((youth)) aspirations and government performance is huge. My thesis is that India has risen despite the state. It is a story of public failure and private success.”

That is what Das means by India grows at night, when government sleeps.