The price of an 'employment economy' is broken childhoods

February 13, 2023 | 04:30 pm PT
Nguyen Hang Journalist
When my sister traveled back from Hanoi to her hometown to celebrate Tet with her son, who lives there with his grandparents, she nearly cried when he exclaimed: "Mom, please don't go! I'll break my piggy bank to build a house for you!"

My sister works for an electronics company. After only three years of marriage, she filed for divorce and took her son, Co, with her. Co has barely seen his father for the past seven years because of his parents’ tumultuous separation. Plus, no matter how high a worker’s income can be, raising a child in Hanoi is not an easy task. My sister decided to have her child live with her parents because raising a family in Hanoi is expensive, regardless of a parent's income. On a bimonthly basis, she takes the bus over 300 kilometers from Hanoi back to her hometown to see her child. Although she has given it her all, Co's childhood has never been perfectly "complete."

As Co has gotten older, I've rarely witnessed him cry about missing his mother. My sister used to take the bus to the city on a regular basis, and I remember when he would always be upset that she had to leave without him. My sister often told her children, "Mom works to earn money so we can build a home together." My sister wept as she told me a year ago that Co said he didn't want his mother to work and live away from the family. He said wanted to use the money he had saved in his piggy bank to buy a house for his mom.

There are no comprehensive statistics regarding the number of children who must live with their grandparents so their parents can work far from home. But I have seen villages where the population is only the elderly and children. If parents who leave their children to work far from home are fortunate, their children will have enough nice clothes to attend school and enough food to eat every day. But they’ll still be without their parents by their side. There are still adults who believe that children like Co should not ask for more because they already have everything. However, Co still weeps alone occasionally because he is beaten by his grandparents and bullied by his cousins. His grandparents were born and raised in the country fifty years ago, when Vietnam was still impoverished, food was scarce, and the highest level of education was seventh grade. However, they must now raise a family member in an era of artificial intelligence, TikTok, and Facebook. Which is an understandably overwhelming task.

Assoc. Prof. Dr. Nguyen Duc Loc, Director of the Social Life Research Institute, told me in an interview that the only way to ensure a community's long-term economic success is to have new schools open up in close proximity to its developed economic zones. According to studies conducted by the institute, 10 years ago, people flocked to cities in search of employment and then returned home once they had amassed sufficient wealth. However, in the last five years, city living has become increasingly more important. For the sake of convenience, many people want to relocate their elderly rural relatives to urban areas. That demand is rising, but it's difficult to make ends meet in the city, let alone work overtime, take care of their kids, and provide them with even the most basic opportunities for growth. The "employment economy" is having a significant impact on the standard of living for the vast majority of Vietnamese workers. To afford social security, they must work longer than eight hours a day. Consequently, my sister's choice to leave her child at home with his grandparents was almost inevitable.

If at all possible, kids should stay with their parents if they want to develop most fully. It stands to reason that parents will find it simpler to understand their children this way, and if not, they will be at least more eager to learn how.

There are villages in China populated entirely by children and the elderly because the parents have left to find work in cities. This situation is often described by the press as "childhoods stolen by parents." The same holds true in Vietnam, where middle-class families struggle due to a lack of quality, affordable housing options, schools near manufacturing hubs, as well as recreational spaces for their children.

Following Tet, millions of workers will return to urban industrial zones without their children, as there is nothing for a child to do in such areas.

After Tet, millions of children will succumb to a constant "craving for mother," just like my nephew did.

*Nguyen Hang is a Vietnamese journalist. The opinions expressed are his own.

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