Looking forward : What to do
Scenarios describing the future are often just that: scenarios. Those who want to paint a rosy (bleak) picture can employ rosy (bleak) assumptions in their projections. People can then debate about the reasonableness and likelihood of the projections. After all, no one really knows what will happen. Here we take a somewhat different approach. We look at the implications for the future of what has already happened.
The future is here: Thailand’s lost generation
We focus on that epitome of a country’s future: the young. In some instances, we can know what the future will look like. Today’s 15-year old will be a 25 year-old ten years from now (or dead). Ten years from now, today’s teen mom will no longer be a teenager, but she will still be someone who had a child when she was a teen. Today’s juvenile with a drug-related offense might have their official criminal record wiped clean upon maturity, but he or she will still be an adult with an actual history of drug use. Poorly educated university graduates might learn new skills after graduating, but we have already lost the chance of giving them a better tertiary education. What might be some of the implications of this lost generation?
In 2011 alone, Thailand had over 114,000 kids born to teenage moms, up from around 93,000 in 2000. While one can debate whether this trend is likely to continue and what the number will be going forward, what has already happened is that over the past 10 years we had more than 1 million kids born to teenage moms. We estimate that this means that by 2025, 1 in 5 of working women aged 25-35 will have been a teen mom. Not surprisingly, this will have several not-so-happy consequences for both mother and child. Based on actual existing data patterns from the national socioeconomic household survey, we find, for example, that teen moms are 12 times less likely to graduate with a university degree and 6 times less likely to work as a professional, with the substantial consequent loss in lifetime income of about 22% comparing to average women.
Over the past ten years, Thailand had a total of 400,000 minor and juvenile criminal cases, most of which were drug-related. We estimate that this means that by 2025, 1 in 12 of working men aged 25-35 will have committed a crime when young. Together with their female counterparts, the total number accounts for 4% of population aged 25-35. The deleterious effect on educational attainment, lifetime income and advancement is obvious – 23% loss of lifetime income comparing to average person.
Over the past ten years, Thailand graduated over 2.5 million additional university graduates. But a university degree alone no longer guarantees career advancement. An increasing proportion of university graduates are working in clerical functions rather than as professionals. Much of this probably reflects the poor quality of university education and graduates. Based on actual existing data patterns from the national socioeconomic household survey, the difference in lifetime earnings between a professional and a clerk is around 30%.
The implication could be widespread. These youth problems involve numbers of people and the numbers trend to grow overtime. Income forgone of these future adults would be the simplest proxy of their lost opportunity. Having been a teen mom means less chance to attain higher education and therefore less (expected) income over lifetime around 1.2 million baht. Those who commit crimes when they were young could consequentially loss 600,000 baht of total lifetime income comparing to average person. University graduates who could not get professional jobs and become clerks would forego 5.4 million baht of their lifetime income. Given the estimated numbers of these young people, the impact could reach 8 trillion baht over lifetime. Based on 40 working years, 200 billion baht a year or almost 2% of GDP would have gone.
“When you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it;
but when you cannot measure it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meager and unsatisfactory kind…”
Lord Kelvin, British physicist and natural philosopher, from an address delivered 3 May 1883
What needs to be done to address these symptoms of decline?
One approach would be to present the usual laundry list of actions in the form of the “policy matrices” so beloved by government and international development agencies in their planning exercises. Such an approach is not likely to be that productive. First, these are national problems. As such, they are not just the responsibility of the government, but also the private sector and civil society at large: citizens, academics, and media. Almost none of the problems we have been describing can be solved by the government alone. Second, these problems have been with us for a very, very long time. They precede and outlive any government. That means that we—the rest of society—have allowed these problems to remain unaddressed.
A more successful approach has to incorporate the following.
First, it has to be measurable. As Lord Kelvin noted, measuring something allows us to know and understand that something better. It also helps to capture people’s attention and interest. Witness our obsession with national rankings.
Second, it has to be based on outcomes. It is in the nature of bureaucratic organizations to justify their existence. The Ministry of Education can no doubt present numerous reports to justify how the 5.2 trillion baht in taxpayer funds over the past 10years have been well spent and how they have met all manner of key performance indicators (KPIs) in terms of outputs: students educated, training seminars conducted, textbooks printed, study tours conducted, etc. But over the past 10 years, outcomes in terms of PISA scores have dropped. Which do we care more about?
Third, it has to be focused on only a few key things. Think of setting KPIs for staff. If we want improvement, we want to set or weight KPIs in those few areas where we want the staffer to really change. Things that are already being done well do not need as much attention. And the list should be kept short to avoid diluting the KPIs. The longer the list, the less likely any of them get implemented or achieved.