Hardly a generation ago, a person with a decent university degree, if he tried hard enough, could land a job proportionate to his qualifications. Today, we have the spectre of engineers, post-graduates and MBAs vying for peons’ and constables’ jobs. A long-delayed report released by the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation shows unemployment at a 45 year high of 6.1 per cent and urban unemployment still higher at 7.8 per cent.

With the working age population slated to rise by 96.5 million during 2021-31 and by 41.5 million during 2031- 41, the coming days would see the pressure on jobs increasing to horrifying levels. Yet, at the same time, corporate honchos are bemoaning the non-availability of qualified persons for jobs in their organisations. It would appear that there is a complete mismatch between the qualifications that job-seekers have and the qualifications desired by job givers.

Our present education system trains students for clerical jobs which are now extinct thanks to the computerisation of business processes. The almost complete absence of students for arts, science and even engineering courses in most colleges ~ which has led to the closure of many educational institutions ~ shows that there is no future for mediocre students in traditional jobs. Decision makers are still required, for which employers look to top students of top colleges. Almost thirty lakh positions are lying vacant in Central and State Governments which the Government fights shy of filling for various reasons, mainly because persons hired by the Government soon forget their duties and insist on an amplified sense of entitlement.

Practical reasons like the existence of many types of quotas increases the difficulty in hiring a person to work in the Government. To get over such problems, the Government has started outsourcing its ministerial and menial work in a big way which results in poor service to the public and reduces the chances of regular employment in Government jobs. With regular employment opportunities shrinking both in the Government and the private sector, the jobs on offer are of a different kind ~ drivers for Ola and Uber, delivery boys for Swiggy and Zomato and repairmen for Urban Clap.

The term “gig” has been coined for such jobs, that is, for jobs for which workers are paid for each individual gig (piece of work) they do ~ such as food delivery or a car journey ~ instead of monthly salary/days wage/hourly wage. “Gig workers” reduce operational costs and companies like Uber employ “gig” workers on a large scale. The downside is that gig workers cannot be relied on for confidentiality and proper teamwork, which lessens the quality of their output.

Yet, the movement towards a “gig economy” is a world- wide phenomenon, with almost 30 per cent of the workforce in the US and Europe being employed in the “gig economy.” “Gig” jobs can be a perfect solution for people who do not want to work for regular hours or at a defined workplace, but “gig” jobs cannot be said to be jobs in the sense we understand it. If backed by a social security system, like that of the West, taking up “gig” jobs may still make sense but in India with no social security worth the name, “gig” jobs are taken up only in desperation.

What are called “gig” jobs today were more correctly classified as under-employment by economists like John Maynard Keynes. Studying under-employment at the time of the Great Depression, Keynes concluded that economies land into an undesirable under-employment equilibrium because of oversupply and insufficient demand for labour. There is said to be oversupply when the labour force is over-educated for the skill level of available employment opportunities in the economy. Insufficient demand amplifies the problem.

At a time of undesirable under-employment equilibrium, well-qualified workers face a tougher job market and have to settle for jobs originally meant for less skilled individuals. Learning a lesson from the rampant under-employment during the Great Depression, the US Bureau of Labour Statistics calculates the “Under-employment Rate” every month from 1948. Regrettably, under-employment is not an issue in mainstream discussions in India. Even under-employment statistics are not maintained by the Government.

Maybe, for this reason, our leaders laud and treat the jobs created by the “gig” economy on par with regular jobs, little realising that a rising level of “gig” employment is a symptom of a slowing economy and “gig” jobs are a slow poison for workers because “gig” workers work for extremely long hours in pitiable conditions. Labour laws classify “gig” workers as independent contractors which means they have no fixed working hours, no protection against unfair dismissal, no right to redundancy payments, and no right to receive the national minimum wage, paid holidays or sickness pay.

The wretched condition of “gig” workers has persuaded a London Employment Tribunal to classify “gig” workers as “workers”, entitled to basic rights. A fortnight ago, the state of California passed a bill that requires companies like Uber to treat “gig” workers as employees. Reacting belatedly, our Government has proposed a Social Security Code that would, inter alia, address the problems of “gig” workers.

However, the proposed Social Security Code would subsume eight central labour Acts, which may result in delay and lack of focus on the plight of “gig” workers. “Skill India” and “Make in India” are excellent programmes to tackle unemployment and under-employment, but the problem is that little has been done to push these programmes. Reacting to the current slowdown in the economy, the Government is trying to revive the economy from the supply side by cutting tax rates and re-capitalising Public Sector Banks, which would increase investment. Given the time lag between investment and production, we may have to wait for some time for employment to pick up.

Quicker results would have followed had the Government invested the same amount of money in rural jobs and infrastructure. If we want to avoid becoming a permanent “gig economy” we have to link our education system to trade and industry to ensure that a student coming out of the education system has requisite skills for the jobs on offer and there is no oversupply in any discipline. The New Education Policy (NEP) could have ensured such a synergy but making students job-ready is not an objective of the NEP. That said, the NEP has a commendable intention of promoting vocational education but given the huge paucity of institutions imparting vocational education, the desired results may be difficult to achieve in the near future.

Probably, it is time the Government stepped in with a wellstructured employment generation programme to ameliorate the misery of the youth who are forced to take up jobs much below their qualifications. Jobless growth is a terrifying prospect.

We would do well to remember Oliver Goldsmith’s words, written two and a half centuries ago: Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey, Where wealth accumulates, and men decay– (The Deserted Village)

(The writer is a retired Principal Chief Commissioner of Income-Tax)