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Youth employment: why business as usual won’t cut it

By Ellie Horrocks and Tshering Wangmo

Tackling youth unemployment and reshaping the future of work is one of the most urgent challenges that governments face. In Asia-Pacific, UNDP is working with partner governments to take up systemic, portfolio approaches to tackle this complex issue. In this post, we share what we hope to achieve and some reflections from the start of this journey in Bhutan. The Kingdom of Bhutan is best known for developing Gross National Happiness (GNH), a holistic and sustainable approach to development to rival the dominant growth paradigm. At a time when GDP growth is no longer correlated with improvements in wellbeing; but with rising inequality and environmental catastrophe, Bhutan’s philosophy provides a rounded vision for development. While it may provide inspiration globally, the Royal Government of Bhutan (RGoB) grapples with many of the same complex challenges that keep other governments up at night. Chief among these is youth unemployment. Bhutan’s youth unemployment rate is 15.7%, with even higher rates among young women and urban youth. In addition, work for young people does not necessarily equate to economic resilience. The scale of the challenge is increasing. Bhutan is a young country, with half of its population under 27 years old. It must therefore simultaneously tackle existing unemployment and create more and better jobs each year as more young people enter the job market.

Representatives of some of the key organisations with mandates that impact on youth employment in Bhutan. Photo: Photo: Youth Co:Lab

The complexity of the challenge is also increasing. As a small, landlocked country in the Himalayas, Bhutan historically pursued a pathway of self-isolation and service to the Tsa-Wa-Sum (King, Country and People). However, creating new and better jobs today requires working with the complex and fast-evolving dynamics of a globalized, interconnected world. With Bhutan’s graduation from LDC status approaching in 2023, His Majesty has set out a vision that embraces innovation and integration: “We have to create economic opportunities for the next generation. It’s time to recalibrate ourselves to succeed in the fast-paced world.” At the same time, employment is not seen as an end in itself; but a path towards GNH. Bhutan’s philosophy therefore offers us a lens to consider what good work really means. Addressing youth unemployment is prioritised in the government’s current Five Year Plan and Flagship Programs, backed up with sizable budget allocation. There are a host of relevant policies (including the Cottage and Small Industry Policy, FDI Policy, Economic Development Policy, Education Blueprint, TVET Blueprint, and more), with revised policies in development. National and international development partners are also investing — in areas from skills development, to entrepreneurship support, to economic diversification and business environment reforms.

With this plethora of initiatives underway — the question we asked ourselves as the RGoB and UNDP is how to ensure that these initiatives add up to more than the sum of their parts? Rather than competing or fragmenting, how can these dispersed initiatives be steered as a collective portfolio that creates multiplier effects?

In Bhutan, approximately eight ministries, 35 departments, 12 autonomous agencies, 20 Dzongkhags (districts) and 205 Gewogs (blocks) have a mandate that impacts on youth employment.

These administrations are all subject to individual KPIs and vertical lines of accountability; while an agenda like youth employment is spread horizontally. Individual organisations are responsible for single-point solutions which assume the challenge is static and linear; not dynamic and complex. These interventions may create temporary improvements at symptom level; however, they do not shift the underlying structures that hold the problem in place. One intervention could be working in direct opposition to another (e.g. building skills for which there will be no labour demand, due to other reforms), meaning they could add up to less than the sum of their parts. We can’t currently see how different interventions are interacting with one another and with their constantly evolving context; and, therefore, which (combination of) interventions are impacting youth employment (or not). Given this, the RGoB and UNDP identified the value that a portfolio approach could bring. By this we mean taking a set of interventions related to youth employment and constructing it as an interconnected portfolio. From here, the intention is to manage the portfolio in order to actively test hypotheses (rather than assume something will work), leverage interconnections, generate learnings fast, adapt interventions based on learnings, and thereby accelerate impact. This approach is designed to run counter to existing barriers to approaching youth unemployment in a systemic way. Barriers identified by government colleagues include little space for experimentation due to rigid planning cycles; organisational silos dividing initiatives that should be closely interconnected; and wide gaps from policy development to service delivery.


Exploring different visions for the future of work in Bhutan. Photo: Youth Co:Lab

For the RGoB, the decision to take this step is part of its broader recognition that business-as-usual approaches are unfit for tackling complex, unpredictable challenges. The government — under the Gross National Happiness Commission (GNHC), Prime Minister’s Office and Royal Civil Service Commission — has begun applying tools such as foresight and design thinking and building its capabilities to work with complexity (including in partnership with UNDP Bhutan, see here and here).

UNDP is on a parallel journey to try and re-engineer itself to better respond to complex 21st century challenges (such as plastic waste). We are clear that there is no magic bullet hiding in a systems map; but only a long-term process of building capabilities (see more on UNDP’s thinking here).

Working under the leadership of GNHC — the central planning and coordination agency in Bhutan — we embarked on this journey late last year by forming a team comprised of organisations who lead policies and services that shape youth employment in Bhutan, including Prime Minister’s Office, Ministry of Economic Affairs, Ministry of Labour and Human Resources, Ministry of Education, Druk Holdings and Investment, Royal University of Bhutan, Bhutan Association of Entrepreneurs, Bhutan Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and Loden Foundation. We conducted data analysis, reviewed literature, and developed lines of inquiry (with support of Zeroth Labs).

Some of the identified economic forces shaping youth employment in Bhutan Last week, we convened this core team in Thimphu. We collectively analysed the current state of the youth employment ‘system’, the forces that shape it, and how it evolved to arrive at its current state.We explored possible divergent future scenarios for Bhutan based on identified trends. And, we developed a guiding vision for the system for the future of work in Bhutan. Colleagues articulated key differences from the current system to the desired system (see From— To below). The principles of the desired system provide a guiding vision. While it is not possible to simply build a blueprint for this ideal state, we can use the desired system characteristics as an orientation to strive towards, and galvanise energies and efforts around these principles.

Throughout the analysis of the current system, colleagues remarked on how the process revealed a much wider interplay of structures and norms that determine youth employment, far beyond their organisation’s frame of reference.

Insights were generated regarding the education system, culture, governance, national service, technology, values, the economy, geography, decentralisation, history, mindsets, politics (e.g. Narrowing the Gap), the environment, policies, services, religion, demographic trends, and more.

With a number of influential processes underway — from formulation of a 21st-century economic roadmap, to development of a new National Youth Policy, to establishment of a new TVET agency and TVET policy, to design of a year-long National Service programme for all youth — colleagues identified energies in the system that could be collectively steered towards transformational impact. At the same time, the messy interplay of forces underscored how there can be no command-and-control centre when dealing with complex systems. Colleagues stressed that Bhutan needed to take its high level of capacity in policy formulation and planning but balance this with agile adaptation of policies and services on the ground and harnessing assets and energies from outside of government (Bhutan as innovation bureaucracy?).

Colleagues viewed ‘good work’ for Bhutan in line with GNH values as work that 1) offers purpose; 2) allows innovation, 3) encourages community, and 4) provides a fair share of value created. Colleagues also stressed the importance of going beyond a narrow concentration on job targets; to thinking much more fundamentally about the future of work and wide-ranging implications for society.

The wealth of data and insights generated last week will be triangulated with ethnographic research to surface the experiences of young people (both rural and urban) and representatives of different institutions within the system. We will use our emerging understanding of the system dynamics to build a portfolio approach. Our rationale for taking this approach to work with a complex system, and some of the resulting core elements, is as follows:


1. As systems change happens at multiple levels, we will identify a range of leverage points and build a diverse portfolio. We aim to build a portfolio that includes different types of intervention e.g. policy, behavioural / cultural, technological, regulatory; is diverse across key dimensions e.g. risk, resources, time, and scale; and is representative of different parts of the system e.g. labour demand, labour supply, and labour matching. See also UNDP’s testing of Sitra’s ‘studio approach’, here. 2. As we can only really understand a complex system by interacting with it, we will actively test our hypotheses. By generating a hypothesis around a specific leverage point (e.g. “young Bhutanese who access diverse peer networks are more likely to find employment than those who do not”) we can build an experiment around the hypothesis, test it, learn, and adapt accordingly. We will also seek to test parallel, competing hypotheses. 3. As systems are interconnected and evolving, we will build a learning and adaptive portfolio. We will generate learnings on our probes / interventions (does the hypothesis hold?) and their interactions with the environment, and adapt the portfolio based on learnings. If we generate a strong learning system, other policies and interventions related to youth employment will be able to coalesce around it, generating more intelligence. 4. As systems are experienced differently from different angles, we will engage diverse perspectives. Beyond conducting ethnographic research to build a granular understanding of the system, we will seek to build broad and diverse coalitions to drive social energies towards change. 5. As our traditional tools and mindsets are ill equipped for tackling complex challenges, we will seek to change culture. We hope to build our capabilities, shift mindsets, and foster a stronger culture of experimentation in RGoB and UNDP (see Nesta’s principles of experimental culture, below).

We know this will be no easy task, and we are eager to learn from others working with systemic, experimental and portfolio approaches who can share their knowledge and help us on this journey. Please reach out! @Tsheringomu and @EllieHorrocks

We would like to thank GNHC and all the ministries and organisations in Bhutan involved for their valuable insights and their investment in this process. We would also like to thank the Youth Co:Lab and colleagues from UNDP Bhutan and Bangkok Regional Hub for their guidance.

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