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The Egyptian revolution was also about the youth unemployment "time bomb"

victoria salvas

Gigi Ibrahim waves the egyptian flag in Tahrir Square, February 3, 2011. Creative Commons photo by Al Jazeera English

Gigi Ibrahim waves the egyptian flag in Tahrir Square, February 3, 2011. Creative Commons photo by Al Jazeera English

In the search for underlying causes of the Middle-Eastern revolts, food, technology, Twitter, and social media have been identified as possible suspects. Last week, Dylan Robertson argued here that these are in fact food revolutions—that drastically increasing food prices had worn away at citizens (commenter Jen Hassum said that “bread determinism” wasn’t entirely true either; I think we can agree that people act for all kinds of individual reasons). Recently scholars and journalists have focused instead on a specific demographic that is determined to initiate change. Recent Time Magazine and BusinessWeek cover stories refer to the “ticking time bomb” of youth unemployment in countries like Egypt, Tunisia and Iran.

There is a large part of the Middle East and North Africa, about 16 countries, were more the half the population is under 30 years of age. That’s six out of every ten people. This is what has been dubbed the “youth bulge.” Millions of young people throughout the Middle East have been too frustrated for too long with the constraints of their government and lack of future job prospects. The sense of hopelessness, stemming from over education and limited employment opportunities has reached a breaking point.

With governments who neglect to invest in the younger generation, and weak economies and industries, (the largest Tunisian industries are agriculture, tourism, mining and textiles), possibilities for the future have seemed very bleak.

The highest youth unemployment rates are in north Africa and the Middle East, at 24 per cent each. In December 2010, 18 percent of 16 to 24-year-olds in the U.S. were unemployed. 11 percent of young Canadian were unemployed in 2007, and the The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development predicts that globally this rate will steadily increase until the end of 2011.

Though miles away, young Canadian and American university grads know the sting of applying to dozens of jobs and hearing back from none. Many attribute this brick wall to the older generation of workers who are holding on to their jobs; some cite the faster pace of business today, which doesn’t have time or resources to train fresh workers.

So without any job prospects, the large population of unemployed youth are forced to work informal low paying jobs, create employment for themselves, or, of course, wait until the recession ends and their elders retire. There’s a sense of helplessness out there.

Young people therefore either end up living at home or heading back to school, with free time to grow increasingly frustrated and depressed. Former Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak’s strategy to deal with youth unemployment was to increase college enrolments. But more education creates more people who aren’t OK with blind obedience to their government. Jack A. Goldstone, a sociologist at George Mason University School of Public Policy quoted in that BusinessWeek article, feels that democracies are “much better at managing large numbers of highly educated people. Spain’s youth unemployment is even higher than Egypt’s, but young Spaniards aren’t trying to overthrow the government.”

Yet another road block for this eager generation, is the fact that they are attempting to enter the job force in a recovering economy. A 2009 study called Growing up in a Recession: Beliefs and the Macroeconomy, looks at the connection between macroeconomic experience and individual attitude constructed during the ‘formative’ years (18-24). Individuals that live through a recession during these years are more likely to “believe that luck rather than effort is the most important driver of individual success, support more government redistribution, and have less confidence in institutions.”

For now, thousands of Egyptian youth feel good about what they have accomplished the first steps towards change  on their own terms—and without the meddling of the West. The next question is how Egypt, Tunisia, and their neighbours will begin to address the acute need for adequate work for their revolutionary generation.

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