Workplace automation in the developed world is adding to career anxiety among young people, many of whom seem to feel they will be worse off than their parents as a result of technological change.
But youngsters in big emerging markets are significantly more confident that they have the skills needed for a successful career, according to a study of 8,700 apparently largely well-educated young people in nine developed and developing nations commissioned by the Indian IT services firm Infosys.
This bullishness stems largely from their greater focus on technological skills, the study says. Three quarters of young people in India and China want to develop skills in data science and analytics, compared with less than half in France and Germany.
Infosys’s upbeat claims about IT potential in developing countries contrasts with the bleak assessment of a UN report in 2013. This warned they were particularly vulnerable to skills shortages given that people with IT skills tended to pursue opportunities abroad.
But citizens of developing nations are making use of technology and online resources to train themselves, increasing the stock of skilled people. This is particularly noticeable in China, where there is a proliferation of fast-growing digital education companies, such as 5Win. This provides online tuition to nearly 1m users in subjects including IT.
The China-focused analysis firm iResearch says that the number of people studying online in the country rose 21 per cent last year to 72m. Most online students are outside larger cities, Chinese group Baidu said in separate research, suggesting that the internet is allowing skills to be acquired evenly across the nation.
The public sector is also playing an important role in helping Asian students to make the most of technology, says Zoraini Wati Abas, who has worked on integrating technology into university courses in Indonesia and Malaysia. Poor Indonesian students who struggle to afford expensive textbooks have benefited as universities rely more on digital resources, she says, while Indonesia’s government is encouraging universities to set up online courses that can be used by people who cannot benefit from conventional campus-based tuition.
Cheap smartphones have enabled millions of relatively poor young people to go online. Many are more interested in chatting with friends on social media than in educational resources but these activities can also provide them with useful skills, even if they do not realise it, says Bunmi Banjo, who works on digital education for Google in Nigeria.
The US technology group in April announced plans to help train 1m young Africans in IT skills such as digital marketing. “People in Africa are generally optimistic about the future — there’s a sense that Africa is growing, and technology definitely plays a big role in that. It’s the next frontier,” Ms Banjo says.
In South Africa, the Google-backed Digify Africa project is focusing on training that will help young people find work, crucial in a country where youth unemployment is over 50 per cent. For many, the learning curve is extremely steep, says programme manager Mazuba Haanyama. “There are some sessions where people don’t have email addresses. How would you research the range of work you want if you don’t know how to [use] the internet?”
Google has rolled out regional-language tools in India for the growing number of Indians with smartphones who are not comfortable using English or Hindi. Such efforts reflect a growing awareness in Silicon Valley of the importance of emerging markets.
But the skills being developed abroad are seen by some as a threat to America’s tech dominance. Of the US technology executives surveyed by law firm DLA Piper in 2014, two-thirds saw a “significant or moderate threat” from emerging tech centres in Asia, South America and Europe.
In some emerging markets, however, there are concerns about whether young people have the skills needed to compete internationally.
In India, technology has been a route to prosperity for thousands since IT services groups such as Infosys rose to global prominence in the 1990s, providing support services for developed-world companies. But as they move into more advanced fields such as data analytics, companies are now struggling to find graduates with the necessary skills, says Nirmal Singh, chief executive of Wheebox, which provides skill assessment services to employers. “Formal education is struggling with this,” he says, noting that companies such as Infosys invest heavily in extended training for new recruits.
In Thailand, meanwhile, the enthusiasm for IT training could prove shortlived once young graduates realise that there are not enough jobs on offer, says Jirapon Sunkpho, a professor in the innovation college at Bangkok’s Thammasat university.
“The number of students graduating with IT-related degrees is about 30,000 a year but the total number of IT jobs in Thailand is only about 50,000,” he says. One problem is cuts in state funding for Thai universities, which have prompted them to ramp up enrolment in popular areas such as IT to increase fee revenue. “We produce more graduates than the market can take,” Mr Sunkpho says.