For young Saudis, a ‘good job’ is the key to the future
The King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies recently released a research paper on attitude and perceptions among Saudi youth regarding employment priorities and what is considered a good job. It was interesting to read the findings, which seemed to confirm some opinions regarding Saudi employees while overturning others.
Under Vision 2030 and the National Transformation Program, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman announced a goal to increase the number of “good jobs” for Saudis from 50 percent to 80 percent of available employment. A good job is defined as one that not only provides basic needs, but also allows for savings and investment, as well as ensuring a healthy and productive life.
The high rate of unemployment among young nationals, especially women, has always been a concern. This issue was aggravated by the global pandemic, but 2021 witnessed a dramatic decrease in unemployment, particularly among women.
The research paper traces the evolution of definitions of good and bad jobs since the 1960s, and the shift in attitudes and perceptions of work as sociocultural and economic circumstances in Saudi Arabia changed.
Instead of focusing on the supply side of jobs, the skills mismatch and lower wages for non-nationals as reasons for high unemployment or the unemployability of nationals, the paper focuses on whether employers and the job market are offering Saudis sufficiently appealing jobs and opportunities.
Previous research on young Saudis indicated an attitude of disengagement, low motivation, a “sense of entitlement” and a “manager mentality,” which is linked to poor work performance coupled with expectations of rapid upward mobility and sometimes hostility to non-Saudis in the workplace.
In addition, the risk and extra work associated with private-sector employment made working there unappealing — bad jobs — as opposed to the structural incentives of safer public-sector employment — good jobs — which were more appealing.
Other structural challenges, according to the paper, include lack of career guidance, and an education system that fails to offer graduates the skills and knowledge needed for private-sector employment.
Nevertheless, recent socioeconomic changes have altered attitudes among many young Saudis, leading them to accept jobs that previously might have been considered “beneath them,” even though in the era before the oil boom of the 1970s many of these same jobs, such as farming, handicrafts and manual labor, were performed by Saudis until expatriates were brought in to do them.
Now, as the government continues to push for the nationalization of the job market, it is common to see Saudis doing all kinds of jobs — and not being so picky about the wages, especially women.
Furthermore, with the launch of mega-projects, and the opening up of the tourism and entertainment sectors, and expansion of its industrial investments as part of the efforts to diversify the economy away from oil, the government is creating more job opportunities for Saudis. It remains to be seen if these jobs are appealing enough to provide Saudis with a sustainable career and stable income, allowing them to compete based on their knowledge, capacity, skills and tenacity regardless of age, gender and connections.
According to the paper, Saudis today face limited job opportunities in the formal sector, which has led to a proliferation of informal work and a growth in entrepreneurial ventures, a reminder of years gone by when our grandfathers took risks, traveled in search of better livelihoods and tried everything as long as it was “honest work.”
Today’s young generation, however, has to contend with several barriers, including the bureaucratic ecosystem, and the stigma attached to unstable, seasonal and precarious jobs. Around 93 percent of the Saudi youth who took part in the 2021 Arab Youth Survey expressed concerns about rising living expenses, while a quarter have seen their income fall since the onset of the pandemic and a fifth admitted that they struggled to save regularly. This, understandably, seems to influence their life priorities, with many putting career ahead of finishing studies or starting a family.
With the erosion of widely available, secure, public-sector jobs and an uncertain and changing work environment, job seekers today must be more flexible and adaptive.
The research paper concludes by pointing out that an over-emphasis on getting a formal “good” job has often been at the expense of productivity, creativity and innovation in the workplace. Indeed, many government institutions were behemoths of redundant employees with minimal tasks who became further outmoded with automation and technology.
With the erosion of widely available, secure, public-sector jobs and an uncertain and changing work environment, job seekers today must be more flexible and adaptive. Interestingly, the paper also pointed out that middle-aged employees who are still capable and willing to be part of change in Saudi Arabia feel they are being excluded from the new wave of development and future success. It seems a shame not to benefit from their experience and knowledge.
In addition to the need for a shift in the mindset of Saudis toward non-traditional jobs, the paper also recommended structural transformations to support a culture of risk-taking and encourage ventures.
Clearly Saudis have shown that they want to work and will grab any decent job opportunity that comes their way, or venture into their own business startup. Nevertheless it is important to provide a certain degree of security and support in order to help them develop their careers and sustain their businesses.
- Maha Akeel is a Saudi writer based in Jeddah. Twitter: @MahaAkeel1