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In India, Millennials Face A Tough Job Market With Unemployment At 4-Decade High


Think about a job that's hard to get, and maybe CEO comes to mind, maybe movie star. Well, how about ticket collector on a train in India? India's state rail company often gets tens of thousands of applications for a single position. It's the same for Indian street-sweepers and software engineers. The reason, NPR's Lauren Frayer reports, has to do with India's population boom and its economy.


LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Hundreds of millennials in starched shirts form a line down the block in this swanky business district of Mumbai. They're interviewing for jobs on a cruise ship.

SURAJ RAMCHANDRA: It is quite difficult to get a job.

PRIYANKA THAKUR: And this is my fourth time I'm trying. I'll stand in the mirror and prepare it.

HARSHAVARDHAN REDDY: Even I saw people who were having nice communication and even, you know, with good knowledge also, but still couldn't find any job.

FRAYER: That was Suraj Ramchandra, Priyanka Thakur and Harshavardhan Reddy. Two-thirds of all Indians are under the age of 35, and they face one of the most competitive job markets in the world. Goutam Das wrote a book called "Jobonomics."

GOUTAM DAS: India has 1 million people coming into the working age population every month. It could be a demographic nightmare if you don't find jobs for these.

FRAYER: A million people a month. India will soon surpass China as the world's most populous country. A tiny sliver of these new workers have the education and skills for white-collar jobs. The vast majority traditionally would have been absorbed by India's agriculture sector.

But people's aspirations are changing. They don't want to be subsistence farmers anymore. And what would normally be the next rung up, manufacturing, hardly exists in India.



FRAYER: So Make in India has become one of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's signature campaigns. He wants to boost domestic manufacturing. That's the way most other developing countries have grown their economies. But the very nature of manufacturing is changing. It doesn't require that many people anymore.

At the Sunplast Electronics factory just outside New Delhi, machines cut and mold lids for washer-dryers. It's work that used to be done by hand, says business owner Prem Gupta.

PREM GUPTA: We always try to automize as much as possible because man makes mistakes. The machine doesn't.

FRAYER: Gupta aims to boost his production by 20% this year while adding only 5% more jobs. And that's typical of the overall economy. It explains why job creation has not kept pace with overall growth. And this past winter, India's official unemployment rate hit a record.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Ladies and gentlemen, unemployment in India at a four-decade high.

FRAYER: The data came out just as Modi was running for reelection, and his government allegedly tried to withhold it. Statisticians resigned in protest, including PC Mohanan. He helped calculate the unemployment rate at that record high of 6.1%.

PC MOHANAN: Traditionally, we have been clocking an unemployment rate of just over 3% all along. So that is why suddenly 6% becomes a big number for us.

FRAYER: And Mohanan says it could actually be higher because the majority of Indians, despite their aspirations, are still stuck doing menial labor. More than half work in agriculture, and they are difficult to count. It's not like they get pay stubs, Mohanan says.

MOHANAN: So it's not that easy to measure employment like the way you do it in the U.S. and other countries. Most people have their own enterprises or their own farms.

FRAYER: Enterprises like a small roadside cart selling fried snacks, for example, says author Goutam Das.

DAS: If they had a better option, they wouldn't be doing that. So most Indians are stuck in bad jobs, which is what I called underemployment.

FRAYER: People like this are now aspiring to fixed jobs, but the organized economy is struggling to absorb them.

Back at the job fair, Priyanka Thakur has just come out of her interview, and she's smiling.

You're finished?

THAKUR: Yeah, and it was a very quick interview.

FRAYER: So you passed?


FRAYER: Oh, congratulations.

THAKUR: Thank you, ma'am. I'm very excited. After so, so long, I can see my dream job. I can do that.

FRAYER: Her dream job is on a cruise ship, where she'll get to escape from India's tough job market for a while.

Lauren Frayer, NPR News, Mumbai.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.