Youth bulge and the Arab future

Youth bulge and the Arab future

WE usually associate the term ‘bulge’ with that densely forested Ardenne region in Belgium where in 1944 Nazi troops launched their surprise attack against Allied forces in a battle known by that name, or more frivolously we associate it with that ungainly paunch men acquire at middle age.
In modern parlance, however, the term has to do with the implications for the Arab world, and for other countries in the the Third World; of that phenomenon that social scientists in recent years have called it “youth bulge.” It’s a term coined by the German demographer Gunnar Heinsohn in the mid-1990s. He argues that an excess in young adult populations in impoverished societies leads to instability, as an unemployed, alienated and resentful generation rationalize their impetus to compete by subverting religion or inventing their own political ideologies.
In the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) today, 30 percent of the population is between 15 and 29, representing well over 100 million people, the highest proportion of youth to adults in the region’s history. So far, so good. But experts, all the way from the World Bank to World Watch Institute, warn that this youth bulge could be either a blessing or a curse, or, in their lingo, a demographic dividend or a time bomb, depending on how governments address the challenge.
In short, if this pool of working age men and women are made job-ready through the acquisition of secondary or tertiary education — what is known as human capital — that would enhance their productivity in the labor market, then we’re looking at a dividend for society. If, conversely, young people lose their sense of worth, and perhaps their sense of direction, because society has failed to give them a raison d’être in life by providing them with jobs, they are likely to become a ticking bomb, a potential source of political and social instability.
Well, guess what? Youth unemployment in the Arab world is on the order of 23 percent, or even higher. To contend that this represents an explosive challenge does not require any Malthusian astuteness on a commentator’s part, because what Thomas Malthus, the English economist and demographer, argued in 1798 — that when human population growth outstrips the growth of available resources, including the ability of a polity to provide sufficient security and food production for its people, chaos ensues — is now considered conventional wisdom.
If this drama is not already playing out in the Arab world, it soon will. Look at it this way: In Morocco, for example, population growth over the next two decades is projected to go from the current 35 million to 56 million, which will shrink the country’s grain land per person from less than one hectare at present to 0.03 hectares, an area barely the size of a tennis court. With few exceptions, young Arabs today live in countries with scarce or untapped resources, where unemployment has soared to unimaginable levels. These young Arabs are then left with the option of either “seeking asylum” in Europe, where they often confront a mix of disillusionment and despair, or joining groups like ISIS in Iraq, where they are used as cannon fodder.
Societies with rapidly growing populations — in the Arab world, the fertility rate is roughly 5 percent, well over the 1.4 percent “equilibrium rate” in developed countries — that face rampant unemployment, often end up with disaffected youth who are susceptible to recruitment into rebel groups that give their lives “meaning.”
Countries, say, with repressive, sectarian or colonial systems (like Syria and Iraq) are most vulnerable to bulge-related violence and unrest. As Michelle Gavin, international affairs fellow at the Council on Foreign Relation put it: “If you have no other options and there is not much else going on, the opportunity of joining an armed movement may be low.”
Consider this: Between 1970 and 2000, 80 percent of civl conflicts took place in countries where 60 percent of the population were under the age of thirty. Today there are sixty seven countries with youth bulges, of which 60 are experiencing social unrest and violence. But wait, these social scientists hasten to add. That does not imply that a youth bulge in and by itself can explain, or explain away, these civil conflicts. Certainly corruption, sectarianism, poverty, nepotism and weak central governments play a role here. For look at how nations like, say, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, which have the resources and the know-how to do so, have dealt with this problem: They actively engaged and utilized their youth bulges.
What we are being told then by experts concerned with this phenomenon is that, yes, true, a youth bulge in an “undeveloped” country is simple to comprehend, but devastating in its simplicity, namely, that in a systemic manner, the discontent of a burgeoning population whose dreams remain unfulfilled will impact not only on our economic progress but, in a trickle-down effect, on every subsystem in our social system — our culture, our politics, our institutions, our education, our values and, well, the way we define our objective world.
Whichever way you look at it, the implications of the youth bulge in our part of the world is an issue that is, indeed that should be, of paramount significance for every single one of us.
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