The absent generation: The ones that got away

Far from proposing solutions overnight, we need to start talking about the absent generation, about their place in the society and about the ways in which they could participate meaningfully

On a recent trip to Nepal after two-and-a-half years, I noticed that every other young person I met was either applying or was thinking of applying to study abroad. An entire generation has quietly fled the country, and those present in Nepal are there only in name. Even in their presence, they are absent, for their aims, ambitions, hopes and dreams are elsewhere. They are the absent generation, the ones that got away.

The trend of young people, especially the privately educated children of the middle classes, leaving the country for higher education abroad is nothing new. What baffled me this time was its pervasiveness. In 2015, whilst I was applying to study in the US, it was fashionable to explore ‘educational’ opportunities abroad, but this was still a trend, not a tradition. The difference is crucial.

When a select group of well-educated youths leave the country for higher education abroad, it does not irreparably harm the educational and social fabrics of society, albeit the resulting loss in manpower and expertise is obvious. However, it is nothing short of tradition, when a whole generation looks compulsively towards outside for its future and only a select group is content to stay in the country. The damages this does to the educational, social, economic, and cultural spheres are profound and irrevocable. For instance, in a decade or two, the urban middle class will be dominated by ageing households. To any entrepreneur reading this piece, forget your cool startups, foster homes for the elderly will be the next cash cow!

The depredations of the education system, particularly the universities, will exacerbate since it risks losing not only the best fruits of our schooling system but the entire orchard itself. Our schools, fanatically devoted to ‘English medium’ education, will continue manufacturing students who glorify the West and are embarrassed to be associated with anything too Nepali. With their appallingly poor Nepali exams, atrociously anglicised Nepali, and miserable ignorance of Nepali culture, the absent generation makes proud its parents, who are silently proud that their child speaks and writes better English than Nepali.

Likewise, our universities will stagnate, or worse, deteriorate. In reputed programmes like STEM and finance, the classrooms will be replete with students who were either unsuccessful in going abroad after their school or plan to go abroad right after they graduate. Their dedication to their studies and their contributions to the education system will be, at best, transactional and, at worse, parasitical, for the beneficiaries of their talents and expertise will not be Nepal. Likewise, the less reputed programmes, already crippled by brain-drain, have sadly turned into congregations of mediocrities, where guess papers monopolise knowledge and exam centres determine grades.

The universities, nonetheless, are both the victims and the authors of this tragedy. Had they not been political playgrounds and had they emphasised creativity and originality instead of conformity and rote-learning, the universities could have retained many students. Where party membership matters more than enterprise and where political connections matter more than qualifications, the disillusioned see few incentives.

The elephant in the room in this discussion so far has been politics. Ask any young person intent on leaving Nepal, the one thing that frustrates her the most, and it will be politics. When she rants about ‘not seeing a future’ in Nepal, it is not a statement of hopelessness about Nepal’s potentials. Instead, it is an opinion on the prevailing mood of the country, influenced above all by politics. Systemic mismanagement of the country, rampant corruption, dismal economic progress and disenchantment with the political process all contribute to the frustrations that ultimately lead people to leave their country. Of these four factors, the absent generation has no control over the first three. Regarding their disenchantment with the political process, it is unrealistic to expect anything more substantial than a self-righteous rant.

It is not my point to say that only those who remain in Nepal can contribute to its future. Indeed, by fulfilling their dreams and by ‘earning a name for themselves’, the absent generation can promote Nepal in ways that those who stay in Nepal cannot. However, if it is their right to pursue opportunities in the countries of their desires, it is their duty to be aware of the consequences in the Nepali society of their absence.

We are past the point where we hold delusions about these students returning with their newfound skills, because we know from experience that it is not happening. In realistic terms, if there is any hope, it is in the youth who are still in the country and the millions of youth who work as skilled and semi-skilled workers in the Gulf countries and elsewhere. Enabling them to thrive in the country, a gradual and gruelling process, is an essential first step to address this problem.

As for the absent generation, far from proposing solutions overnight, we need to start talking about them, about their place in the society, and about the ways in which they could participate meaningfully. Indeed, as a tired saying from the self-help industry goes, ‘The first step to solving a problem is to recognise that it exists.’

Paudel is studying politics and economics at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania