Commentary / Japan

Hone the skills of Japanese youth to shoulder burdens of the 21st century

by Mithun Kamath

Contributing Writer

As the United Nations marks World Youth Skills Day on Monday, we are reminded of just how vital it is that young people are equipped to help build the sustainable, inclusive and stable societies we want them to inherit. The 1.2 billion young people aged 15 to 24 years, who make up 16 percent of the global population, are the future of our world. However, young people are almost three times more likely to be unemployed than adults, the work available to them is frequently less secure, and the transition from education to employment can often be a tough and long process.

While Japan’s unemployment rate is 2.4 percent, youth unemployment is higher at 3.8 percent. Ensuring that we keep youth unemployment down is vital in Japan given the disproportionately large social burden that rests on the next generation’s shoulders. While just around a tenth (9.64 percent) of Japan’s population is aged 15 to 24, the population is aging faster than that of any other nation. The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry estimates that over-65s will account for 40 percent of the population by 2060, which will put a huge responsibility of care on today’s young people, while placing an ever greater reliance on tax revenues generated by young people at work.

Compounding matters, as we prepare to enter the third decade of the 21st century, today’s graduates face a job market that is being transformed beyond recognition by the inexorable march of AI and automation.

A report released last month found that the number of robots in use worldwide has increased threefold over the past two decades, to 2.25 million, and this is expected to multiply even faster over the next two decades to reach 20 million by 2030. Since 2004, each new industrial robot installed in the manufacturing sector displaced an average of 1.6 workers.

What’s worse is that in developed economies, it is their less-developed regions that are being hit hardest by automation. As such, we might imagine that inequality in Japan might become exacerbated for the next generation if we do not take the challenge of automation seriously and act now to ensure young people are skilled to face the world of work they’re entering into.

Indeed, a report released last year by the Pew Research Center showed nearly 90 percent of people surveyed in Japan think robots and computers will be doing much of the work now done by humans in the next 50 years. Some 83 percent saw this causing greater inequality, while 74 percent believed people will have trouble finding work.

Automation is just one of the many challenges young Japanese will need to be adaptable enough to prepare for. Climate change is increasing the frequency of extreme weather events and is forcing millions of people from their homes around the world. Tomorrow’s workers need to be sufficiently flexible and skilled so they can work anywhere in the country or even the world.

For young people to be able to adapt to the new realities, it’s vital that they are skilled to move with the pace of change. Our education system must be able to produce fully formed, creative, engaged, critically thinking human beings who have the capacity not just to adapt and survive in a world of work changing faster than ever before, but thrive in it.

Japan has a tremendous culture of education, but its schools must extend that thirst for knowledge beyond the academic subjects to teach young people skills such as self-management, communication, collaboration and problem-solving. These are the sorts of skills that, no matter what changes are wrought in the job market, or what new challenges or opportunities emerge, will serve the next generation of Japanese for the rest of their lives.

With the right skills, Japan is a land of opportunities for young people. It is the third-largest economy in the world, and one of the world’s most innovative economies with the largest electronic goods industry and patent filings. Young people must be given a stake in this vital economy.

And when equipped to do so, the challenges faced by young Japanese people can be turned into opportunities. New technologies may be a threat to many jobs we see today, but they will also create new jobs and even entire industries in which those adept and adaptable enough to embrace them can work.

Similarly, tackling climate change will itself produce new horizons for today’s youth with rapidly expanding renewable energy and green technology sectors acting as drivers of future jobs growth. And with a great education, we can also grow the scientific and political minds who may yet solve the biggest threats to our planet.

The future of Japan, and our planet, rests on the shoulders of our children. This is the world we are giving them and the choices our generation has made has meant this can be a heavy burden. It is too late to change that. But what we can and must do today is ensure our children are strong enough to carry it.

Mithun Kamath is group CEO of Arc Skills.