Last week the New York Times ran a story on young people in rural Thailand leaving the farm to pursue urban education and employment:

[I]n Thailand today, rice farming is suddenly the preserve of the old as young people stay longer in school and as the vast metropolis of Bangkok lures the country’s best and brightest to careers in air-conditioned workplaces. “All they can do with their hands is use a cellphone,” said Sudarat Khammon, who at 33 is the youngest farmer in Baan Khlong Khoo, a village of stilt houses outside the central Thai city of Phitsanulok. Only 12 percent of Thai farmers today are younger than 25, down from 35 percent in 1985, according to government statistics, and their average age jumped to 42 in 2010 from 31 in 1985.

As the article notes, it’s hardly a surprising story given the shift from agriculture to services and industry that has occurred in Thailand, and most other developing economies, over the past half-century. In the 1960s agriculture made up about 36% of Thailand’s GDP; now it is about 10%.

What is surprising (but perhaps it shouldn’t be) is the reaction of Mahidol University’s Iam Thongdee to this transition:

As young people flee the farms, the values and knowledge of rice farming and the countryside are fading, including the tradition of long kek, helping neighbors plant, harvest, or build a house, says Iam Thongdee, who grew up in a farming family and became a professor of humanities at Mahidol University in Bangkok. “This has alarmed me for a long time,” said Mr. Iam, clutching an ancient manuscript handed down through generations in his family and used to instruct farmers in the rituals of village life. “We are losing what we call Thai-ness, the values of being kind, helping each other, having mercy and gratefulness.”

This sort of rural nostalgia – of which Ajarn Iam is far from being a lone promoter – does nothing to address the central socio-economic challenge facing rural Thailand.

In fact, Thailand’s problem is that the movement of labour out of agriculture has been relatively slow. In the 1960s, the agriculture accounted for 83% of the workforce (producing 36% of GDP). There has been a substantial shift in the composition of the labour force, but Thailand still has almost 40% of the workforce in agriculture, producing only 10% of GDP. There has been some labour productivity improvement in agriculture, but it has been lacklustre by regional standards. Labour in industry is 8.5 times more productive (in terms of its contribution to GDP) than labour in agriculture.

No wonder young people brought up on farms want to move, just like Ajarn Iam!

A core challenge for Thailand is to improve the quality of its education, especially in rural areas, so young (and not-so-young) people can move into more productive, and lucrative areas of employment. At the same time the productivity of agriculture, and rural enterprise more generally, needs to be increased to provide sustainable and rewarding livelihoods for those who chose to remain on the farm. Nostalgic appeals to communal “Thai-ness” won’t have much appeal in modern rural Thailand.