Will dreams come true?

15 Jul 2017

 The rural family of Ms. Prak Thavy whose two older daughters are unemployed and her younger daughter, age 13, is a student who has talent for math and Khmer and wishes to become a teacher in the future.

When young people transition into the world of work, it’s a critical time—for young people themselves, their families, and Cambodian society.

Cambodia’s economic success means young people have more hope and better prospects for the future. But what does it take for young people to succeed at work and in life? I’ve researched this and other questions about young people over the past several years.

A recent survey on school-to-work transition by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) gives a curious picture of youth employment. About three-fourths of young people aged 15 to 29 are employed. However, many of them are in vulnerable or poor-quality employment, are under-qualified for their jobs, or work excessively long hours. In addition, many young Cambodians have to enter the labour market early and don’t have the necessary skills and education. Obviously, young people from wealthier families often end up with better incomes and job conditions. About 90 per cent of youth say they are “satisfied” with their current job, but at the same time half of them say they intend to change for a better paid job.

Cambodians see education as a major means to securing upward social mobility. Educational opportunities, from primary to post-secondary level, have expanded considerably, but a majority of young people leave school before they complete their general education. The large majority of them work in low- or non-skilled jobs. Hundreds of thousands of them have to migrate to find work, most often in labour-intensive jobs and sometimes across the borders. They are making a living (and sometimes supporting their families), gaining life experience, learning skills or a trade, and making plans for the future. They may enter the full-time working life because they have to make a living, but in time they seek better jobs that give them more autonomy and higher incomes.

Hundreds of young men and women I have talked to over the past several years express a strong desire for a better future—for themselves and their families—and they’re working hard to achieve it. When asked in the School-to-Work Transition Survey 2014 by ILO what their main aspiration was, more than half said “having a good family life.”

Cambodia’s impressive economic growth is accompanied by improvements in many sectors, yet new opportunities are accompanied by new and increased inequalities and risks in social, economic, political and environmental terms. Family remains the main safety net, in both economic and spiritual terms, for young people, but it is up to the government and other stakeholders to ensure inequalities and risks in all forms are mitigated to allow young people to grow, to keep learning skills, to explore opportunities and, most important of all, to earn respect and dignity from their work. After all, Cambodia’s and its youth’s dreams are symbiotic: to become better off before growing old.