Why the young aspire to leave agriculture behind

Often, migration is an adaptation strategy, and a myriad of factors shape whether a person undertakes a journey to a new city in search of opportunity.

By Prachi Patel – Migration Communications Consultant, IWMI, USA

Mother and daughter at their family fish store in the Ayeyarwady Delta in Myanmar. Photo: Majken Schmidt Søgaard / World Fish
Mother and daughter at their family fish store in the Ayeyarwady Delta in Myanmar. Photo: Majken Schmidt Søgaard / World Fish

Of the 164 million migrant workers leaving their homes in search of new jobs and opportunities, an estimated 1 in 8 are under 25. Across nations, young people play an integral role in shaping migration trends. Various research projects led by IWMI have found that young people aspire to leave rural areas behind in search of jobs and opportunities in urban centers.

In Ghana’s Upper West Region, rural out-migration is also linked to climate variability and fewer agricultural opportunities in villages. Unpredictable rainfall patterns and poor crop yields are compelling residents to seek new livelihoods. Young people, often men, are finding jobs in cities in Accra and Kumasi, working on others’ farms, or engaging in unregulated gold mining known as galamsey.

Similarly, in Myanmar, young people in Kyonkadun Village are finding new occupations and identities beyond the fish trade. In the Ayeyarwady Delta, fishing is integral to society, yet often done by families who cannot afford to retrain, or learn about other ways to generate an income.

“Right now, the youth find it embarrassing to do these types of jobs [selling fish],” said one woman in the village. “They don’t want to walk around the village carrying a tray of fish.”

As education becomes more accessible, and urban employment possibilities emerge (coupled with the parallel shrinking of waged labor work in agriculture), many youth from these fishing households aspire to move to Yangon to find ‘professional jobs’. These include roles in government, as well as in the burgeoning manufacturing sector.

In Laos, similar patterns are emerging. In a long-term research project supported by an IWMI fellowship, Roy Huijsmans, Associate Professor of International Institute of Social Studies at Erasmus University, unraveled how getting involved in migration as a young person can shape other life events, such as marriage, occupational trajectory and residence. He interviewed young migrants from 2007 to 2009, and then over a decade later in 2020.

In Laos, he found rural youth who have not been able to pursue (post)secondary education can acquire skills beyond those required in the village by doing informal apprenticeships or paid work in urban centers or other countries.

“Leaving has become so much easier,” he said. “Acquiring skills through work is a more realistic avenue than school. It’s very available on the other side of the border.”

Improved connections, both social and digital, make it more possible for young people to migrate to cities. In Myanmar, a road connects Kyonkadun to a nearby township and the electric grid has been extended. In Laos, migration networks, facilitated by mobile phones and the internet, have become more established.

Gender dynamics impact, and are impacted by migration. Many communities are experiencing a ‘feminization of agriculture’ as men migrate for employment and leave women at home to take on farming labor.

In addition to women juggling agriculture, they must continue to manage the home as well as other income activities, such as trading goods. Yet, with proper support structures, such as women’s farmer groups, some women farmers in Ghana have increased their engagement and agency in agricultural work.

With this said, gender patterns cannot be generalized. In Myanmar’s Kyonkadun Village, women from inland fishing households are finding fewer income opportunities with the mechanization of labor taking over traditionally female tasks, such as dried shrimp processing. As a result, while young men are told to find work in the village, women are encouraged to focus on school.

“After the ninth grade, parents don’t ask the girls to help out at home anymore, but to focus on their studies,” said one 16-year-old woman who aspires to work in the Yangon police force. “Parents feel that girls can’t get a job without a higher education while the boys can.”

Often, migration is an adaptation strategy, and a myriad of factors shape whether a person undertakes a journey to a new city in search of opportunity. No broad generalizations can truly speak for the experiences of any young person aspiring to leave home and migrate. Yet, whether it is escaping hardships, such as limited job opportunities, poverty and climate variability, or a search for upward socio-economic mobility, many young people are aspiring to leave agricultural livelihoods to build futures beyond the village.

Thank you to Indika Arulingam, Research Officer – Social Sciences, IWMI Sri Lanka; Gitta Shresta — National Researcher — Gender Social and Environmental Justice, IWMI Nepal; Manita Raut, Senior Research Officer – Social Science, IWMI Nepal; Esther Wahabu, Research Officer – Social Sciences, IWMI Ghana; Roy Huijsmans, Associate Professor – International Institute of Social Studies, Erasmus University and Diana Suhardiman, Research Group Leader – Governance and Gender, IWMI Laos for sharing their research and guiding this piece.

Myanmar: Work on youth engagement with small-scale fisheries in the Ayeyarwady Delta is supported by the CGIAR Research Program on Fish Agri-Food Systems (FISH) led by WorldFish and the International Water Management Institute through the CGIAR Trust Fund, and the European Union through the “Africa to Asia – Testing Adaptation in Flood-based Resource Management under the Programme Putting Research into Use for Nutrition, Sustainable Agriculture and Resilience

Ghana: The Resilience Against Climate Change – Social Transformation Research and Policy Advocacy (REACH-STR) project in the Upper West Region, Ghana, is funded by the European Union. With focus on climate, gender and migration, the project seeks to generate and promote better understanding of social transformation analysis among decision-makers to achieve more inclusive and sustainable economic growth policy and programming in northern Ghana by 2025.

Laos: Youth Migration and Rural Changes in Laos: A Longitudinal Approach in central Laos, is supported by an IWMI fellowship and conducted by Roy Huijsmans, International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) of Erasmus University Rotterdam, The Netherlands.

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