May 28, 2024 Last Updated 8:34 AM, May 27, 2024

Underemployed ambitions

Published: Apr 07, 2015

 Thijs Schut

Early on a Thursday morning, about 25 young people (aged between 19 and 29) gather at the church grounds in Ronaga, a small village not too far from Bajawa, the capital city of Ngada district in NTT (East Nusa Tenggara). They are there to take part in a seminar organised by the local Catholic Church about leadership and capacity building. Guided by a young priest from the diocese the young people start the day with singing some songs, while dancing the polonaise. They also play games, like musical chairs, and at some point the girls and boys are even expected to sit on each other’s laps, with shy laughter as result. 

The real purpose of the meeting, however, is to learn about communication, cooperation and self-awareness through interactive exercises. Together they talk about the virtues they have – one young woman shouts, ‘I bring money to the bank’, and a young man tells the group he has never had an accident with his motorbike. They also discuss their dreams and ambitions. Often there is laughter, but all participants seem eager to engage with each other. In one of the exercises, the young people are challenged to choose three priorities for a successful life and explain their choice. For most participants, one of the pillars of a successful life is making a positive contribution to the wellbeing of the community. Or as Anis, aged 23, says: ‘I want to develop myself, so I can help develop our community.’ 

Troubled education-to-work transitions

The majority of the young people at the church seminar are still transitioning from tertiary education (mostly bachelor’s degrees) to working life. They are not yet settled. Unmarried and still living with their parents, they are struggling to get jobs appropriate for their level of education. These young people are part of a growing cohort in Indonesia who is encountering such problems. The current generation of young Indonesians has unprecedented access to education. This is a direct result of a development discourse that pushes for universal education. Unfortunately, in many poor rural areas, like central Flores, there is a considerable disjunction between the number of youth with tertiary education degrees and the number of available appropriate entry-level jobs.

Until recently, young people from Ngada had to leave their district in order to pursue higher education. Popular cities for studies are Ende in Flores, Kupang in Timor, or Makassar in Sulawesi. Nowadays, it is fairly normal for young people with high-school degrees to pursue tertiary education, although study and living costs remain an issue for poorer families. Many students therefore rely on larger social networks, like extended family, to finance their academic endeavours. Fortunately for current and future Ngada students, a campus of the Kupang-based Universitas Nusa Cendana (UNDANA) opened in Bajawa in October 2013. This branch greatly enhances access to tertiary education in the region as it reduces transport and housing costs for local students. 

Many of the educated young Ngada people who study outside their district remain in the city of their education after graduation, or migrate to other parts of the country. However, there is also a large contingent of them that returns to their parents’ communities. Unfortunately, the situation in Ngada is not easy for educated young people. Often they become reliant on support from their families while in transition from education to work, because Ngada lacks a properly functioning job market. 

The single largest provider of work in the region, the government, has difficulty hiring new people. For example, the local health department has not been able to hire new midwives, nurses and so on for at least a year now, due to budget constraints. As a result, last year alone some 70 graduate midwives were not able to find a job, while 40 nurses are still waiting for a position at the local hospital. At other government departments, the situation is not much different, with the exception of the Department of Education. Here, teachers are still hired, although through special so-called ‘honourer’ contracts, which provide significantly lower wages than those for staff with official government contracts. 

Thus, the public sector either has no money to hire new people, or can only provide underpaid and insecure jobs. Meanwhile, the private sector is too small in Ngada to provide enough entry-level jobs. And even if there are jobs, most of these are, just as in the informal sector, low level and consequently less suitable for educated people. With a potentially growing number of university graduates in Ngada, due to the new UNDANA campus, the future for fresh graduates on the local job market remains bleak. 

Building up the community 

The precariousness of young people’s situations in Ngada is mediated by strong social networks and social obligations that are still prevalent in the region. Young people can rely on these networks—the pooling of labour and resources—for food, a little money and the occasional paid activity. Without having to worry constantly about the necessary conditions for survival, young people have a surprising degree of freedom to continue to develop themselves.

There are various ways to do this. Some attend seminars like the one described above, and are active members of youth organisations like the Catholic Youth Movement. These organisations provide good venues to socialise with friends, or to get involved with community activities, like singing in a choir or organising soccer tournaments. But young people are also active in these movements so they can benefit from opportunities provided by these networks. For example, members of the Catholic Youth Movement can get involved in paid work for the church. Or they may become known in the village as a proactive community member. This, in turn, can help young people in their quest for work.    

Others take on volunteer or semi-volunteer positions. Maria, 24, for example, works in the largest community health centre (puskesmas) in Bajawa, where only four midwives are currently employed. ‘Way too little’, according to the head of the health centre. Luckily, he has a pool of 14 so-called sukarela, or semi-volunteer, midwives. Occasionally these volunteers get some money from the health centre’s operational budget, and often they receive ‘thank-you money’ from a former patient. Although the official status of these volunteers is unclear—only recently has the district’s government begun to register them, as the central health department was previously unaware of their presence in the community health centres—they are the ones to supplement the failing ability of the local government to hire much-needed staff. 

Youth organisations are great venues to get involved with community activities like soccer tournaments - Schut

Maria recently finished her midwife training in Makassar. Her parents had paid for her education, but refused to continue to pay for an extended stay in the city. Consequently, Maria returned to Bajawa and moved back in with her parents. When I ask her if she would have rather stayed in the city, she replies: ‘No, it is our custom that girls take care of their parents. I knew beforehand I was supposed to return to Bajawa.’ Four years ago, when Maria finished high school, her anticipated return to her parents’ house did not seem to endanger her career prospects. As Maria says: ‘My sister could get a job as a nurse without any difficulty, and so I picked a health-related study as well.’ She did not think that becoming a midwife would be difficult. However, as she now experiences, there is little opportunity for her in Ngada. Still, she feels that she has to ‘build up herself’ and therefore is glad she can work as a sukarela. Moreover, she explains her work in terms of ‘building up the community’.

Maria is not the only educated young person to use this sort of terminology in Ngada. Marcus, a 27-year-old graduate in Indonesian literature from Flores University (Ende), works at two schools as honourer, but still has to work as a motorbike taxi driver to obtain a decent income. ‘Of course’, he says, ‘this isn’t how I imagined graduating to be, but going to the city won’t get me much further. There are many more graduates like me over there, and they are probably much better connected. Besides, here I feel I can have a much bigger impact on society.’ 

In another village, Alfons, aged 28, lives with his parents. He has just returned from Jakarta with an undergraduate degree in IT. He says: ‘I don’t care for the city. I’m a village guy, and I really want to make a contribution to my community.’ He has just started a small transport business, but is still economically dependent on his parents and older brothers and sisters. Of course, he hopes his business will succeed, but he also sees his entrepreneurial endeavours as a means to contribute to the local community by—in his words—changing ‘the passive mind’ of the local farmer.  

A new mentality

Typically, this passive mind is seen as a hindrance to development as it discourages individual success. It makes community members rely too much on social networks instead of actively trying to improve individual livelihoods, and thus creates a ‘budaya minta’, a ‘culture of asking’. Relatively highly educated youth in Ngada are often critical of this so-called ‘village mentality’.

Educated young people in Ngada are rather vague about their own role in changing this mentality. Twenty-three-year-old Anis tells me: ‘I think that by talking to people I can encourage them to be more active and creative; to think outside the box.’ On another occasion, Echiel, aged 25, says: ‘Things would already be better if people start to bring a little money to the bank, in case of emergencies, so they don’t have to go around asking for help...You know, it’s just a matter of mentality.’ Young people thus believe a new mentality would be more productive, but they do not have clear result-driven strategies to create this new mentality. Remarks about the village mentality are therefore most often meant as a reference to their own educated background, as opposed to that of relatively uneducated farmers and their reliance on a ‘culture of asking’. Paradoxically, this mentality is strongly embedded in the social networks and obligations of Ngada, which not only enable young people to pursue their education in the first place, but also provides a safety net during their difficult transition from education to work.

There is a tension between educated young people’s criticism of a village mentality and the actual position of these young people in Ngada. On the one hand, they need their social networks for their daily needs, but on the other hand, they criticise other villagers who rely on these networks much as they do. The educated young people do not seem to realise the irony of this situation. They take it for granted that they can rely on these networks, as their current position is just a phase. Meanwhile, their social networks also accept their roles as supporters, for educated young people are widely considered to be the ‘future’ of the community, as the bearers of development.  

Anis, Maria, Marcus, Alfons and Echiel are just some of the many young people who actively try to pursue, through their own ideals and dreams, a better life for themselves and the community. They might be opportunistic entrepreneurs or aspire to typical government jobs, yet their expressed ambitions transcend popular beliefs about uninspired and lazy bureaucrats. But at the same time, these ideals, so explicitly expressed in the Catholic Church workshop, challenge the same networks that they are dependent upon. 

While education should be encouraged as a means to empower young people, and young people who wish to make a significant contribution to society should be admired, their criticism on the local mentality brings to the fore some fundamental questions. Will young people in the future still be supported by expansive social networks while undertaking their education, or during their transition to work? Or will these networks have changed under pressure of ideas about new mentalities? These questions—among others—are a reminder that while increased access to education might be a means to economic development, it also creates new social challenges. 

Thijs Schut ( is a PhD candidate in Anthropology and Asian Studies at the University of Western Australia.

Inside Indonesia 120: Apr-Jun 2015

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