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Magazine / Need to Know: National Security

The Whole World Is Watching

Why the Middle East’s own “youth bulge” is key to the region’s economic and political stability.

On the streets: Many of the young Egyptians celebrating Hosni Mubarak's departure don't have jobs.(KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images)

February 21, 2011

Over the past several weeks, the world watched enraptured as crowds led by young Egyptians thronged the streets of Cairo to protest President Hosni Mubarak’s rule and to force him from office. No two countries are exactly alike. But many of the same demographic and economic forces that produced the Egyptian earthquake are present throughout the region—which could mean more tremors ahead.

Like Egypt, most countries in the Middle East are experiencing an unprecedented youth bulge. In countries from Morocco to Iran, people ages 15 to 29 make up the largest share of the population. Ominously for the region’s rulers, neither Tunisia nor Egypt, the epicenters of the uprising, is particularly unique in its demographic tilt. Young people represent 29 percent of the population in both Egypt and Tunisia, compared with 28 percent in Bahrain, 30 percent in Jordan, 31 percent in Algeria, and 34 percent in Iran, all of which have faced their own protests. The comparable number in most Western countries is around 20 percent.

What’s more, the next few years may represent a point of maximum demographic pressure across the region—a period somewhat analogous to the 1960s in the United States when the first baby boomers surged onto the political and cultural scenes. In Bahrain and Jordan, the share of the population under 30 is projected to continue rising for several years. But in countries such as Egypt, Tunisia, and Iran, the youth bulge is either peaking now or will peak shortly. That means the generational demand for change could also be cresting.

 

Demographic pressures are not the only reason behind the protests, but they compound preexisting and largely neglected institutional challenges that have been brewing for decades across the region.

Most immediately, the burgeoning number of Middle Eastern youth has added significant pressures to the region’s education and health care systems, natural resources, and labor markets. The problem is less the sheer numbers than the strains that these young people are placing on the outdated education and employment systems. Ultimately, the greatest strain is in the labor market. First-time male job seekers in the Middle East now need on average two years to find a job. For women, the wait is even longer. In Egypt, half of male graduates with at least secondary schooling don’t find a job for two years; it takes five years before 75 percent of all graduates obtain work. Only 25 percent of women hold a job 15 years after graduation.

 

The greatest strain is in the labor market.

 

Paradoxically, the under-performing regimes have created some of the high expectations that they are failing to meet. In the past, many of these regimes guaranteed jobs to residents upon graduation from secondary school, college, or university. Those promises were revoked years ago, but they still shape the expectations of many frustrated young people who find themselves unemployed.

Perversely, the best-educated young people face the most difficult climb. School-enrollment rates in the region are high, with near-universal access for primary education and nearly 70 percent for secondary education. But generally, those youths with more-advanced education suffer higher unemployment rates than those with less. These economies are producing few high-skill jobs, and the schools are producing relatively few graduates with the critical-thinking capacity to effectively fill the ones that are created. In Egypt, university graduates have the highest unemployment rates. These educated youths have been at the vanguard of the uprisings.

Another way to measure the erosion of opportunity is to compare the unemployment rates among young and older people. This “relative deprivation” is evident in Egypt, Jordan, and Syria, where the youth unemployment rate is four times higher than the rate for people over 30. (In the U.S., the unemployment rate for workers under 30 is about double that for older workers.) In Egypt, young people make up 80 percent of the total unemployed, and 95 percent of the unemployed youth have at least a secondary degree.

Those who do find jobs are often faced with meager earnings, job instability, poor workplace conditions, and a lack of social protection. The result is politically incendiary: a generation of young people who are more educated than their parents but are worse off.

With the global community now closely watching developments in the Middle East, the West has a great opportunity to embrace new faces in the region. Its governments must focus on helping youths by promoting entrepreneurship, encouraging private-public partnerships, and providing development assistance outside the security framework. But most of the challenge falls to Middle East governments. They need to make the young the priority and to work more closely with the private sector and civil society to produce long-term solutions.

Those countries that fail to meet these tests might find themselves reliving the historic events that have shaken the region to its foundations over the past few weeks.

Edward Sayre is a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution and director of research at the Middle East Youth Initiative founded by the Wolfensohn Center for Development at Brookings and the Dubai School of Government. Samantha Constant is a former director of the Middle East Youth Initiative and a special adviser to James Wolfensohn.

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