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INTERACTIVE MAP: Explore the youth unemployment crisis throughout the Middle East

Explore the youth unemployment crisis throughout the Middle East

(Sources: A Generation in Waiting edited by Navtej Dhillon and Tarik Yousef, International Labor Organization, United Nations, C.I.A. World Factbook, The World Bank, U.S. State Department, The Economist)


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The Waiting Generation -- By Charlotte Buchen
The stepping stones that take a person from youth into adulthood are similar almost anywhere in the world, and it’s never easy: establish a career, buy a home, get married. But in the Middle East, the struggle to launch what’s known as one’s “practical life” is getting even harder, and more and more young people are not making it past the first step -- getting a job. 

Youth unemployment across the region hovers at around 25 percent -- the highest in the world. As is described in the upcoming book A Generation in Waiting, edited by Navtej Dhillon and Tarik Yousef, this level of joblessness amongst young people is creating a “waiting generation” across the Middle East as lives are stalled before they can begin their trajectory. With no job, there is no money for an apartment. Without an apartment, there’s probably no chance of getting married; tradition holds that a young man must establish a household for his bride. A generational crisis with unpredictable consequences is brewing.

The reasons for the youth unemployment crisis are many, but an important starting point is demographics. Right now, the region is experiencing an all-time peak in its youth population. The World Bank calls it a “youth bulge.” Since 1980, the population of 15- to 24-year-olds has doubled. In Egypt, 70 percent of the population is under 30. 

This surge in the young population is saturating the job market at a time when governments across the Middle East have been attempting to shift their labor markets to encourage private business and reduce the numbers of government employees. Many countries are also trying to open their economies to direct foreign investment and to increase trade by reducing tariffs. Yet none of these reforms have had much benefit for young people.

That’s because, while young people across the Middle East are better educated than ever before, their skills don’t necessarily match those sought by the private sector. Schools are still dominated by rote memorization rather than creative problem solving and innovative thinking. A heavy focus on entrance exams further underlines the focus on memorization. A recent survey conducted by the World Bank found that 25 percent of firms in the region report the lack of skills among workers as a major constraint on business growth.

Young people are likely to end up in the informal sector, where wages are low, or if they can afford it, to simply wait in hopes of an opportunity.

In Egypt, one government strategy has been encouraging young people to take factory jobs rather than waiting for something better. The Egyptian Ministry of Finance sponsored a television advertisement that depicts two scenarios: One young man whiles away his time playing backgammon in a café, while another seizes the opportunity to work in a factory and eventually is promoted to manager. 

INJAZ al-Arab, the nonprofit featured in our main story, believes the solution is to empower young people to create their own jobs. The Company Program is the pinnacle of their studies. Student teams from nine countries start, run and liquidate companies in five weeks, then compete before top regional business leaders for the title of “Student Company of the Year.”  Find out more about this year’s teams.

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES:

MEYI: Youth Unemployment Series

“Youth Employment in the MENA Region: A Situational Assessment” (PDF)
In this World Bank Social Protection Discussion Paper from 2005, authors Nader Kabbani and Ekta Kothari investigate the youth labor market in the Middle East/North Africa region to identify the factors contributing to its consistently high rates of joblessness among youth.

The Middle East Youth Initiative was established for the sole purpose of studying “youth exclusion” in the Middle East, publishing articles and reports on issues of youth unemployment, marriage, political participation and housing in the Middle East. They are releasing a book this summer entitled A Generation in Waiting, excerpts of which were provided to FRONTLINE/World and used as one of the primary sources for the map and article. The Middle East Youth Initiative is a project of the Wolfensohn Center for Development at the Brookings Institution and the Dubai School of Government and is based in Washington, DC.