Combating Idleness and Deprivation

By Frank-Jürgen Richter

Business Times, 28 November 2015

We need to look deeply into why we lose able bodied youths to negativity.

There are many ways to finish a sentence that starts with “Idle hands..” and all are somewhat negative. Some years ago, a delegate from a Gulf State at one of my conferences told the gathering “… we will soon have 40,000 young people on our streets with no jobs to go to. That is worrying us”. The delegates all agreed; they too were faced with the same issues with the idle often called NEET: Not in Employment, Education or Training.

This has been a long time coming. When the Industrial Revolution accelerated in the late 1800s, most people werepoor, living on less than the UN’s modern cut-off of US$1.25/day. There were a few rich people, aristocrats, and land owners, but the masses worked for their living on farms or as craftsmen.

Then power-assisted machines took over from muscle power. There were revolts against the use of machinery, but its use continued and continues today as robots take over from people-power in industrial and commercial sectors. China is the globe’s largest purchaser of industrial robots that displace salaried workers; and India, once the home of labour-intensive back-office work, is progressing into automated processing of crime records, legal case law, weather and climate research, insurance and financial risk analysis, healthcare demographics and more.

Academic research shows that about 50 per cent of US jobs risk “robotisation,” but some jobs will not be robotised (at least not soon): jobs in the caring sector for instance. Although simple mobile robots can undertake hospital ward rounds delivering medication and eliciting some data, they cannot be deployed with scale. The human touch and judgement is needed, especially in outreach tasks when health care visitors make home visits.

Ageing population
However, most nations are not aged enough at present to demand mass employment of carers to absorb some NEETs, but that need will arrive soon as all populations age. Presently, dependency ratios are falling with too few of working age paying taxes to support the needs of the retired people and other aspects of government budgets. A slight amelioration comes from a falling birth-rate across the developed world but in the short term, that will hardly lead to a work-place solution for the idle. Presently governments are unwilling to spend much cash on their elders when they must provide social support for the NEETs and try to combat their radicalisation.

Many ask “what can be done for the youth of today?” Clearly, draconian solutions such as building a new Chinese wall, a Corinthian canal or even autostrada as in Italy in the 1920s – all by hand to ‘employ’ as many as possible – are stupid in the modern world. Yet the speed at which the NEETs issue has arisen defeats our imagination. There is the awful coincidence of massive robotisation raising unemployment (although also raising unit productivity) but which occurs at a time of reduced global trade. Rapid changes destabilise social norms.

Society needs to alter its perceptions of idleness: those in work, in government, the legislature and law enforcement perhaps ought to look more kindly on the NEETS. The NEETs could help themselves by reflecting on what they could do rather than taking the role of victim and demanding state aid.

Two social change programmes come to mind – that against smoking and another against drinking alcohol and then driving. Neither achieved quick success. There was no instant ‘switch off’ to aid the recipient’s health or drinking behaviour. A similar complexity may be found in the developed world’s education systems. Part of the problem of non-participation can be traced to disengagement from schooling at an early age and to a curriculum which doesn’t offer enough options for varied courses and hands-on learning; or sufficient flexibility for those who are disengaged or undecided about their options. Opening up progression routes to make it easier to change route, reskill or pursue different qualifications is a vital mechanism to ensure young people can re-engage when their social, emotional or financial contexts permit. In poor nations the lack of good education simply exacerbates the problem.

Radicalisation is said to be a new and insidious force – yet it has been with us for millennia as religions of all inclinations (and even communism) proclaimed hope for the downtrodden. And who would like a life without hope? Once however evangelists would have to travel to their audiences risking life and limb if the authorities inclined to thwart them. Now television and the Internet provide ready access to well-produced proposals offering NEETs many hopes – as always, just rise and follow is the message! This is hard for national officials to combat – NEETS have experienced their own historic realities bringing them to their current predicament and they may not have sufficient critical judgement to see through dubious promises.

We must hope that social awareness, clear messaging and the greater development of trust in the authorities will bring about a behaviour change in the NEETS turning them to look for positive roles, supporting society rather than resorting to bombs and guns. But presently governments round the world are proposing draconian restrictions on society rather than moving towards engagement and an understanding of their disenfranchised. I am not advocating appeasement – only that we need to look deeply into why we lose able bodied youths to the deprivations they may experience as NEETs.

The writer is founder and chairman of Horasis, a global visions community.