In Photos: The Last of Cambodia’s Generation-X Workforce
Regular afternoon breaks
Regular afternoon breaks(Photo: Debayan Dutta / The Quint)

In Photos: The Last of Cambodia’s Generation-X Workforce

Long is the way and hard, that out of hell leads up to light.
John Milton, Paradise Lost

Cambodia’s past is tragic, and the country has struggled to get its mojo back since the fall of the Khmer Rouge, especially in the labour sector. A stroll or two around the capital city of Phnom Penh would make you wonder why most workers are millennials who look like they are either in university or freshly out of it. So where have all the middle-aged folks gone?

A rarely-sighted middle-aged worker rests after he’s done unloading his truck at a go-down. Usually, it's young laborers doing this kind of heavy lifting. 
A rarely-sighted middle-aged worker rests after he’s done unloading his truck at a go-down. Usually, it's young laborers doing this kind of heavy lifting. 
(Photo: Debayan Dutta / The Quint)

The Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot (Saloth Sar) claimed the lives of almost 2 million people in Cambodia during their brutal regime which lasted from 1975-1979. The Marxist leader’s attempt to take Cambodia back to the middle ages to restore the country’s 'forgotten glory' resulted in one of the worst mass killings of the 20th century.

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A middle-aged rickshaw-puller sleeps on his rickshaw during the wee hours of the morning. Rickshaw-pullers in Phnom Penh are usually in their 20s or past their 60s.
A middle-aged rickshaw-puller sleeps on his rickshaw during the wee hours of the morning. Rickshaw-pullers in Phnom Penh are usually in their 20s or past their 60s.
(Photo: Debayan Dutta / The Quint)

And then you turn to look at the demographics, and find a chilling truth. Demographics (according to Census data) show a sharp dip in fertility rates and a rise in child mortality rates between 1970 and 1975. During the Khmer Rouge regime, families delayed having children, and most of the children born during that period were killed, leaving a huge age and skill gap in the labour force – those who would’ve been aged 35-55 in 2019 and constitute a primary chunk of Cambodia’s workforce were most affected.

The Khmer Rouge wiped out most of Cambodia’s generation-X workforce.

Here is a glimpse of the last of Phnom Penh’s generation-X workforce documented in October 2019:

Russian Market

Regular afternoon breaks
Regular afternoon breaks
(Photo: Debayan Dutta / The Quint)
Waiting for customers in empty lanes
Waiting for customers in empty lanes
(Photo: Debayan Dutta / The Quint)

The last of them are still found going about their normal lives. In Phnom Penh, they are usually found concentrated in the Russian market and Central Market (Phsar Thmei), mostly running shop.

She guards her shop and looks at passersby hoping they would visit her shop. 
She guards her shop and looks at passersby hoping they would visit her shop. 
(Photo: Debayan Dutta / The Quint)

Pol Pot’s ideology was to kill whole families, especially intellectuals, and even the children so that no one could come seeking vengeance.

Guarding the steampunk junkyard
Guarding the steampunk junkyard
(Photo: Debayan Dutta / The Quint)

During the Khmer Rouge regime, while several thousands were executed by the administration, many others died due to starvation, disease and overwork.

Patiently waiting for customers
Patiently waiting for customers
(Photo: Debayan Dutta / The Quint)
Washing the dishes after customers have left, setting the table for the next round of customers. 
Washing the dishes after customers have left, setting the table for the next round of customers. 
(Photo: Debayan Dutta / The Quint)
A shopkeeper busy doing his own thing
A shopkeeper busy doing his own thing
(Photo: Debayan Dutta / The Quint)
A coffee shop owner bides his time on his phone until someone asks him for their caffeine fix. 
A coffee shop owner bides his time on his phone until someone asks him for their caffeine fix. 
(Photo: Debayan Dutta / The Quint)

But the Khmer Rouge wasn’t the only crippling factor for Cambodia’s workforce. According to studies, most Cambodians earn less than $1 a day. This, coupled with violent protests over the years demanding higher wages, has provoked many workers to cross the border to Thailand in search of better job opportunities.

Central Market (Phsar Thmei)

It is almost time to close shop. She’s waiting for any last customers. 
It is almost time to close shop. She’s waiting for any last customers. 
(Photo: Debayan Dutta / The Quint)
Cutting the vegetables
Cutting the vegetables
(Photo: Debayan Dutta / The Quint)
A woman skins the fish before it is sold to a customer
A woman skins the fish before it is sold to a customer
(Photo: Debayan Dutta / The Quint)

Silk Island

A lady boiling silkworms and extracting the silk from them
A lady boiling silkworms and extracting the silk from them
(Photo: Debayan Dutta / The Quint)

While Cambodia tries to get back on track despite the numerous setbacks and make its way up the economic ladder, these photos tell the tale of a journey shadowed by loneliness and suffering.

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