THIMPHU, BHUTAN - In the bustling marketplace of the Bhutanese capital, Thimphu, a group of youngsters laugh and joke as they play a game of cards outside a karaoke bar — one of the few entertainment options Bhutan has permitted. Dressed in trendy t-shirts and figure-hugging jeans instead of the traditional loose robe called a “gho,” these men in their early twenties have plenty of time on their hands. After finishing high school, most of them have been waiting for several years for either a job or a seat in the handful of colleges in the country.
Taking a few minutes from the game, 24-year-old Pema Chedup admits to a growing sense of frustration as he stares into an uncertain future. “I have parents to look after by me. So if I don’t have job, I am a bit worried, how can I look after parents?” he asked.
He is not alone in calling for faster development in a country that has remained isolated from the world and has set its unique benchmark of measuring progress in terms of Gross National Happiness (GNH) rather than Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
On the surface, Thimphu is an idyllic home of its 90,000 residents. Charming, traditional homes dot the lush, tree-covered mountains and a gentle river flows by the city. But the scenic beauty cannot mask the growing sense of impatience among an aspirational young generation as the Himalayan country struggles to create jobs. Besides tourism and hydropower generation, there is virtually no industry or private sector in Bhutan.
At a crossroads
As she guides visitors through a museum showcasing traditional culture, 19-year-old Tashi Pelden counts herself among the fortunate few. “It is so difficult for us to search, get jobs. I am lucky. I think I am so lucky,” she said.
Unlike an older generation, Bhutan's youth are closely plugged into the outside world. Television arrived in 1999, beaming images from around the world. Mobile telephones became more readily available in 2003, giving Bhutan its first social-media-savvy generation.
Caught at the crossroads, these young people do not want their country to be stuck in a time warp. The traditional occupation of tilling mountain farms or making handicrafts is clearly not a priority with many who have studied in schools around the cities.
Policymakers in the young democracy admit that youth unemployment poses a significant challenge as the mountain country of about 750,000 people undergoes a social transition of a kind other Asian countries witnessed decades ago.
Pointing to about 100,000 people who have come from neighboring India to work on roads and other projects, the head of the Center of Bhutan Studies and GNH Research, Dasho Karma Ura, said there is no shortage of jobs.
The real problem, he said, is generating the right kind of jobs.
“There is growing search for jobs in urban areas, white-collar office jobs," he said. "We are unable to create that which fits the young people’s aspirations.”
Some of those youth, like Sonam Dendup, are setting their sights elsewhere.
“[Bhutan] should be more developed in terms of facilities, in terms of guiding youngsters so they won't be jobless like us,” he frets, explaining his rationale for securing a New Zealand visa. He doesn't just want a job, he wants a country that fosters entrepreneurship for a young, restless generation.
Studies by the Center for Bhutan Studies and GNH Research show that, at the moment, rural areas are “less happy” than towns because they lack urban facilities, fueling migration into the two main cities, Thimphu and Paro.
Thirty-seven-year-old Tsering Dorje grows asparagus, apples, potatoes and chilies on a one-hectare farm near Paro. While his income is sufficient, he wants more money to help his six-year-old son acquire the skills to work in the city. “If he can successfully study and he get a job, it’s OK. I want to give him a job,” said Dorje.
But Ura, the analyst, feels the lure of cities may be short-lived. “For the moment, urban areas will seemingly look happy, but vitality of community, cultural diversity, environmental quality, all these things will be in short supply in course of time in urban areas,” he said.
To stem the urban migration, he and others are calling for more investment in rural agriculture and industry. “We have to develop rural life, rural vitality, very quickly," he said. "I think the window is not going to remain so long, we have to get it right in next five years.”
Even as Bhutan debates the merits of city versus rural living, sooner rather than later, the world’s last Shangri-La will have to confront a daunting reality: how to balance the rising aspirations of its youth with its goal of happiness.
“If we have a job we can be happy, because we can stand on our own feet,” said Pema Chedup, looking around at his friends, for whom the wait appears interminable, before rejoining the card game.
“More jobs is very important," he said. "Not only for me, but for all others.”