The start of 2022 was marked by the launch of Lingnan University's new China and Regional Studies Webinar Series. The series, organised jointly by Lingnan and India’s Ahmedabad University, aims to tap into the topical issue of China-India relations, compare the experiences of the two countries in some significant areas, and identify potential fields for collaborative research.
Two distinct angles on the theme of youth aspirations were tackled in the first webinar, with presentations from Professor Mona Mehta, Associate Professor, School of Arts and Sciences, Ahmedabad University, and Professor Weiyan Xiong, Research Assistant Professor in Lingnan’s School of Graduate Studies.
Harnessing traditional skills and community bonds in Gujarat
As urban professionals have reaped most of the rewards in the country’s post-liberalisation economy, it is no surprise that inequality is on the rise in India. With the government blaming the career struggles of many of the nation’s young people on a skills gap, Prof Mehta’s presentation examined how lower middle-class youths, with limited amounts of educational and cultural capital, are coping with economic precarity.
Prof Mehta chose the Maldhari, from the western Indian state of Gujarat, as the subject of her research. Literally, Maldhari means keepers of livestock, and this community’s culture and traditional dress style have become linked to an essential Gujarati-ness. “But squeezed out of their traditional livelihoods, Maldhari youth must find alternative occupations to survive in the new neoliberal economy,” she explained.
Prof Mehta focused her study, which she began in 2019, on the Rabari, one of the four groupings within the Maldhari community. Despite rising educational levels, there has been a decline in upwards social mobility among lower-middle-class youth in the small towns of India. Frequently, vocational training – such as in the field of computing – fails to lead to career opportunities. But, Prof Mehta found, Rabari youth do not just wait around for something to turn up. “One of the ways in which Rabari’s have managed to overcome their socio-economic reality is by identifying certain occupations that align with the existing traits of the community.”
Taking advantage of their strong community solidarity, they have diversified into occupations which require limited levels of education, such as transport and money lending. “Rabari youths seem to have two specific coping mechanisms. One, they are exposed to a relatively well-defined horizon of occupational trajectories from with their own communities. Second, the community works as a vocational training centre, where specific skills such as lending money and taking on risk, can be observed, learned and tested, with the support of the community network.”
Rabari rock stars, who are among the new cultural icons, celebrate risk taking in their songs. In their videos, these rock stars are not shown despairing about the changes in their world, but instead seen embracing modernity and the rewards that success in the new economy brings, while, at the same time, celebrating their community and its traditions. This attitude, Prof Mehta contends, resonates with ordinary young Rabaris who are making their way in the world.
Tackling the dispiriting mismatch between graduate numbers and employment opportunities
Prof Xiong began his address on the struggles faced by many of the nation’s non-elite students, who discover that there is often little correlation between their efforts and their prospects in the jobs market, by defining what the trending terms “involution” and “lying flat” mean.
The term involution was originally used to describe the phenomenon whereby greater input does not produce a proportionally greater output, Prof Xiong explained. However, he noted, its use has evolved. “It’s now used to describe irrational and unnecessary competition within an industry, and a system, especially education.”
While Prof Xiong defined lying flat as the feeling of burn out that has led, in the education sector, some students to decide to opt out of the relentless competition to work longer and harder.
One of the main roots of this problem lies in the massification of China’s higher education that has taken place since 1999. In that period, enrolment figures have increased severalfold to over 50 per cent of the eligible demographic, and the number of graduates by nine-fold, to over nine million in 2021. Many more, seemingly well-qualified, young people are, therefore, competing for a limited number of, what are seen as, desired positions in the jobs market.
While the Chinese government is promoting entrepreneurship, and vocational and application-oriented education, Prof Xiong pointed out that this move does pose a challenge to Chinese culture and society, which treasures research-oriented degrees.
Prof Xiong did have suggestions for tackling this and other aspects of the underlying problem, though. He said the definition of what constitutes success needed to be expanded at both the institutional and the individual student levels. He also recommended that young people get out of their comfort zones and prepare specifically for the careers they really wanted to pursue – while acknowledging that, currently, many young people don’t seem to know what they want to do. Finally, he said young people should accept they will need to become life-long learners.
In conclusion, Prof Xiong expressed the hope his presentation could help generate ideas for future research collaborations between Lingnan and Ahmedabad.