COVID-19-induced harms on ASEAN’s youths and the government’s roles to resolve it 

This op-ed is part of AASYP’s Digital Dialogues 2021, which is a programme that aims to provide a platform and forum for future leaders from across the region to contribute to the policymaking and diplomacy sphere by engaging in issues relating to Gender and Diversity, Green Recovery, and Emerging Economies.

The first few years of entering the workforce is always the hardest. Most young people have few connections, little work experience, and barely any capital. In 2020, these problems were further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Consequently, hiring young people has become a bigger risk since their education and training was greatly disrupted. In fact, the unemployment rate among youth has jumped much higher in most regions in Asia.

Image: The ASEAN Post 

The pandemic has detrimental effects on the individual careers of young workers. Youths make up most of the service sector and informal jobs, and due to the impacts of COVID-19, many young workers were out of work. These young workers are mostly underprivileged and have relatively fewer options regarding employment opportunities, which is why most people will be funnelled into the few professions that are still available during these times, mostly in the gig economy. However, this surge in labour supply resulted in the market becoming incredibly oversaturated and makes getting a gig almost impossible. For instance, when there are too many drivers registered in services managed by companies primarily operating through mobile applications, the chance for each driver getting an order becomes incredibly slim. This is why so many young workers are prepared to go to the extent of breaking curfew laws or travelling through storms to make a delivery. 

In addition, young people lose out on most opportunities in training or education, hindering their progress in social mobility. The lines of work available for the uneducated are mostly repetitive with almost no chance of promotion. Combined with the fact that they have to spend most of their time at work and if they miss a day they will be replaced, most youngsters will not have the time to pursue any kind of education. This problem is made worse in the ASEAN region, where education is already not as effective as that of developed countries. Furthermore, in these countries the number of night time classes or education institutions for full-time workers is limited, making education even more inaccessible. In the long term, this traps our youth in a vicious cycle of instability, where even if at some point they do save up money for formal education, it would have been too late for meaningful social mobility. 

A broader societal impact is that we are wasting the ASEAN region’s “golden” age demographic. This loss of young potential will  severely affect the ASEAN region itself. Right now, youths (people aged 15 – 24) make up around one fifth of the population of each ASEAN country. This means that the region has incredible potential, as a young workforce means more innovation, especially in technology. In 2012, India’s youth percentage was similar to ASEAN’s current statistics of 19.1 percent). Through educational policies, such as specialised talent development programs or mass vocational training, India was able to harness that young power and become one of the top five fastest-growing countries in the following years. If our young people spend their time on the same job, working gigs with no way of developing, it will be a huge waste of our golden years. Furthermore, without rapid development in the young workforce years, by the time this generation grows old, the medical system, the economy will not be able to hold up. This problem will be more prominent for ASEAN nations where many social benefits are not fully developed and are vulnerable in times of pressure. 

The solution should help young people who are too busy trying to make ends meet to join training and education. Governments need to provide incentives for youths to start vocational training instead of chasing unstable task-based jobs. Such a model is the Indonesian government’s Pre-employment Card program (Kartu Prakerja) where people who are unemployed or laid off could receive money through completing education programs provided by the government. This model could also be combined with Malaysia’s Apprenticeship Programme for Graduates, where employers are given 1000 MYR for hiring apprentices for three months. The Pre-employment Card program has helped over 100,000 people find jobs after the training program and the Apprenticeship Programme for Graduates is set to help train 300,000 apprentices. This way, companies will have to take in young people instead of considering them a risk hazard. Also, many young people could now actually get a stable job and countries can fully utilise the power of a young, well trained demographic.

This measure can only be provided through government regulations and policies.  Private sectors in ASEAN do not have the capital to create financial incentives sufficient for millions, and the companies with that power benefit from COVID-19. We can see international fast-food chains that adapt to the global pandemic wiping out local restaurants or delivery apps relying on having many drivers for faster service while the driver’s job becomes increasingly unstable. Because of this, no big corporation will spend funds on education or training because they are profiting already from this pandemic. This is why only governments can help young people through this pandemic. 

Without the government’s proper intervention, the people who are just now entering the labour market will be forever stuck in a cycle of unstable jobs, lack of training, and deprivation.

This article was written by Nguyen-Anh Tran, edited by Lutfil Azmi, and reviewed by the AASYP Publications Team.

Note: The views and opinions expressed in this op-ed are solely those of the writer and in no way represent nor reflect the position of AASYP and members of the AASYP Publications Team. The AASYP Horizons Blog provides a platform for the free expression of opinions and intellectual discourse.

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