Arab Youth

Arab Youth

Challenges and Opportunities for an Expanding Demographic

This presentation focuses on the demographic and economic context in which youths in the Arab world make their transition to adulthood and the factors that influence their decisions. The region’s demographic has changed a lot over the last two decades. There has been a sharp decline in birth rates since the mid-1980s, decreasing the average number of children per woman from six to three in 2010. This decrease has an automatic impact on population growth. There has also been a rapid increase in the size of the working-age population within the total population across the region.

We call the current phase a ‘demographic window of opportunity’, as the surge in the working-age population creates prospects for economic development, personal savings and investments. This also creates challenges. Governments need to invest in the education sector to empower individuals and to create job opportunities to meet the rising demand from youths. In the Arab world, it must be reminded, the youth (15-29 years) represents 30 percent of the total population, and 45 percent of the working-age population. Education, despite important investments and levels of education attainment, remains heavily affected by drop-outs and low-quality. There is no single Arab country which has matched the average international standard for education quality. Representatives from the private sector complain that young graduates do not have the skills that employers require to remain competitive. Growing needs for training and investments finds a lot of resistance.

Arab youth employment rates reveal the difficulties of young graduates to find adequate jobs; this reality applying particularly to women. With regard to the social factors that affect education and labor markets, we shall mention marriage. Marriage influences the education investment decisions among Arab men. In the Arab social context, marriage constitutes an important step in the transition to adulthood, but this comes with undeniable economic and social costs. These costs could help explain why marriage rates in the Arab world are very low within men between 25–29 years. Among the social costs, we can mention social instability, family breakdown, and recourse to alternatives to legitimate marriage. The financial costs of marriages are very high in the region: $43,000 average in Saudi Arabia. In Egypt, 25 percent of the poorest need four years of earnings in order to afford to marry.

In a flexible institutional environment, populations would be able to adapt. But in the Arab world, populations cannot adapt. Institutions are known to shape the actions and behaviors of individuals by, for example, providing incentives. In the Arab countries, youths are given the wrong incentives. Consider, for instance, the role of the public sector. Its ability to absorb youths has been restricted across the Arab world, and yet, there is no decline in the preference among youths for the public sector. In Syria, surveys showed that 80 percent of students preferred the public sector, while 60 percent state that they would only consider public sector jobs, when taking into account the benefits offered. This is especially true for women. There is also the impression that the public sector enhances men’s marriage opportunities. The education system as it is today is designed to improve the skills required in the public sector (to prepare graduates to become bureaucrats), but in reality there has been a decline in job absorption by the public sector. Firms in the private sector operate within a highly restricted regulatory environment, and they have problems protecting the rights of workers.

Guidelines for a new youth policy agenda should be framed within a long-term perspective as opposed to quick, short-term fixes. The role of institutions and incentives should be better understood and education policies further analyzed to evaluate progress.

Dr. Paul Dyer is Research Associate at Dubai School of Government, United Arab Emirates. This article was a lecture submitted at the 15th Annual Conference of the Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research (ECSSR).                                                                                                                          Source: