Nada Berrada, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
In a period of neoliberalism and rapid globalization, youth coming of age have witnessed their access to quality employment further hampered by the COVID-19 pandemic. Worldwide, one in six young people have lost their jobs since the onset of the pandemic. Youth in MENA countries constitute a demographic majority and face one of the highest unemployment rates in the world, especially those living in historically marginalized communities.
Authors studying youth conditions have argued that neoliberalism regulates the everyday lives of young individuals, influencing their opportunities for employment. Neoliberalism is a political and economic approach that favors market-oriented policies with a cutback in government spending. It is displayed in how the state infuses market values into all aspects of society, encouraging individuals to re-envision and redefine their roles as citizens and perceive themselves as consumers, investors, and entrepreneurs instead. Many authors have described neoliberalism as an exploitative system that widens inequality and is reinforced through discourse and practice by governments, corporations, international organizations, schools, universities, prison systems, NGOs, and civil society organizations.
Neoliberal thinking perpetuates two principal assumptions that cloud an understanding of youth labor issues in the MENA region:
- First, it obscures the fact that there are not enough jobs created in MENA countries to provide placements for all the young people seeking them. Instead, it focuses on individual capability to obtain and maintain a job.
- Second, such a focus on the individual level ignores the structural factors mediating employment and instead focuses on the personal “potential” irrespective of what conditions may be necessary to secure employment.
Young people from the MENA region find themselves in a tournament of discourses not of their own making. This article explores the neoliberal assumptions embedded in discourses of the ‘youth bulge’ as well as the concept of “Waithood.” Then, to showcase the consequences of those narratives when employed to guide policy design and youth-centered activities, I offer two examples: youth unemployment and entrepreneurship.
Tournament of Narratives: Youth Bulge and Waithood Discourses
The Youth Bulge
MENA youth are often defined as a demographic impediment. The fast-growing young population has created what analysts refer to as “a youth bulge,” a baby boom created by a period of declining infant mortality coinciding with a high fertility rate. The term ‘youth bulge’ is often used to indicate a growing youth demographic that includes everyone under the age of 30 and is used interchangeably with the idea of a youthful age structure in a country’s population.
The term youth bulge is fraught with connotations. In this discourse, young people have been viewed as a human resource that, if not mobilized ‘efficiently,’ is likely to become a social risk. In this sense, youth has become a signifier that embodies both potential and risk. Many actors have engaged in this binary discourse, as the examples below demonstrate. Whereas some countries in East Asia have seen a youth bulge translate into fast economic growth, Murphy argues that the youth bulge in the MENA nations has instead resulted in a “poor return” for their states:
A youth bulge should be an opportunity for economic growth¾a ‘demographic gift’ of dynamic, working-age, lower-dependency ratio individuals who can contribute to the productive and savings sectors of the economy. Instead, the region is experiencing a bulge of dependent, under-utilized and increasingly impoverished individuals who represent a poor return on the educational investment already made. The promises of post-independence regimes not only remain unfulfilled, but for those who were born too late to play a part in bringing them to power, the gap between rhetoric and reality leaves a deep sense of alienation and exclusion.
The Arab Human Development (AHD) Youth report issued by the UNDP in 2016 highlighted the disparate portrayals of youth as both a force for potential social benefit and destruction:
Today’s generation of young people is more educated, active and connected to the outside world, and hence has a greater awareness of their realities and higher aspirations for a better future. However, young people’s awareness of their capabilities and rights collides with a reality that marginalizes them and blocks their pathways to express their opinions, actively participate or earn a living. As a result, instead of being a massive potential for building the future, youth can become an overwhelming power for destruction.
Sunil John, founder and executive of the public relations agency ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller, wrote in the 2016 Arab Youth Survey’s opening statement that youth represent an untapped potential:
There are 200 million young people in the Middle East and North Africa. Always spirited, often frustrated, they represent either the region’s biggest dividend, or its biggest threat. It is my personal view that they are a dividend; a wellspring of untapped potential to rival any oil or gas field, and a net benefit to the region and the world.
Last but not least, Dhillon, an economist affiliated with the Brookings Institution, offered this description of the double-connoted character of the youth bulge:
The region faces a scenario of double dividend or double jeopardy (…) the region has a large youth bulge, presenting a large pool of human capital which if used productively can usher growth and prosperity. If countries can take advantage of the confluence of these two historic gifts, they can create a virtuous cycle of higher growth, higher incomes and savings. Failure to do so will result in a double jeopardy: the economic and social exclusion of youth drains growth and creates social strife. But the time for securing this double dividend is now. The window of opportunity – where countries have fewer dependents – will close in the next ten to fifteen years.
While many countries in Europe have an economic need for young people given their low youth demographic, many analysts have portrayed a large youth demographic in MENA nations as too many Muslim youths who constitute a “disruptive and even dangerous element[s] about whom something should be done.” The concern is that the large groups of youth with limited or no economic opportunity are at risk of being radicalized and drawn into violent (and other) forms of extremism.
Youth bulge theorists claim that it is not the innate characteristics of young people that can lead to social unrest, but competition for limited resources and job opportunities that can yield such conflict. For example, the Asian Tiger countries (Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, and Taiwan) were able to capitalize on their young populations in part because of education and economic policies that turned their human capital to economic and social advantage. These cases are presented as examples in which a youth bulge became a “demographic dividend or gift.”
Some MENA region analysts have argued that it may already be too late to realize the area’s demographic gift as “the crest of the demographic wave has passed” as international attention is shifting to Sub-Saharan Africa as the region with the largest population share of youth.
As a response to the youth bulge, these statements illustrate how youth in the MENA region are lumped together in a group that disregards their individualities and subjectivities. In these narratives, there is rarely any emphasis on youth and how important it is for them to earn decent employment and livelihood. Instead, they are regarded as a human resource that needs to bring in capital and to constitute a “return on investment” to states and industries to be considered non-threatening.
Scholars have sought to describe the period in which young people are unable to fully enter “adult” life with the scarcity of economic opportunities in MENA countries. Waithood is thus “a twilight zone between childhood and adulthood” following a period of adolescence distinguished by a sense of dependency:
Waithood, as a phenomenon, is fueled by four factors: the youth bulge, delayed marriage, youth unemployment, and the high costs of marriage.
Scholars employing the concept of Waithood have drawn from life course and transition studies that assume a linear progression from childhood (immaturity) to adulthood (maturity). Waithood is defined against the transitional steps that entail moving from school to work, from the parental home to one’s own housing, and from being single to marrying and creating a family. Waithood often “pathologizes” transitions outside of the norm it assumes. Political discourse employing Waithood tends to place the “blame” on young people instead of the broader structural contexts of which they are a part. For instance, while Waithood recognizes some of the difficulties young people encounter in the MENA countries, those who employ the idea nonetheless often depict the region’s youth as malingerers. Waiting, generally speaking, indicates not doing anything until something else happens. It points to passivity and thereby fails to capture the efforts of millions of young individuals in MENA countries as they negotiate their lives every day.
This period of Waithood has led some scholars to label MENA youth a “precariat”, a term that refers to a youth class living in insecurity and moving in and out of jobs that give little meaning to their life and experiencing “the 4 A’s: anger, anomie, anxiety, and alienation.” However, summarizing youth “precariat” experience as anger, anomie, anxiety, and alienation fails to recognize the challenges, joys, and small successes those individuals confront daily. Like the “youth bulge” descriptor, Waithood leads those who adopt it to imagine that the everyday life experiences of MENA youth are relatively homogeneous when they are surely not.
Consequences of Youth Narratives on Policy Design and Activities
To showcase how the youth bulge and Waithood narratives shape young people’s lives and policymaking, I offer two examples: youth unemployment and entrepreneurship.
With one of the highest levels of youth unemployment globally, reaching 30 percent in 2017, it is difficult to find a reference that discusses youth in the MENA region without addressing joblessness as a critical concern. Sukarieh and Tannock have considered this fascination with youth unemployment by asking hard questions about its origins:
Why are academics and other elite social actors talking about ‘youth unemployment’ in the first place, as opposed to unemployment more generally? Who is talking about youth unemployment, and in the service of which interests and agendas? What work is the category of youth performing, to shape the experiences and actions not just of young people with respect to unemployment, but those of a wide range of other (adult) actors as well? 
Youth unemployment occurs in a global context influenced by neoliberalism. Sukarieh and Tannock have critiqued the framing of youth unemployment as a ‘youth problem’ rather than an ’employment issue.’ Framing unemployment as a youth generation problem draws attention away from the effects of structural issues that create that condition, including social inequality and poverty. It also distracts from the fact that the single most crucial factor for high rates of youth unemployment has been the ongoing inability of MENA nations’ economies to create enough decent employment opportunities for those seeking positions.
USAID, the World Bank, and other regional organizations have developed programs to address high unemployment levels among young people. However, most of these initiatives have sought to prepare youth for the job market through skills training. Accordingly, Sukarieh and Tannock have observed that the unemployment issue has been used to promote business-friendly agendas instead of addressing the underlying problem of insufficiency of jobs:
Alongside this fear and anxiety, youth unemployment, as a concept and issue, has also been embraced by global elites as a political opportunity that enables them to frame unemployment as being, first and foremost, a problem of youth, and to use this problem as a way to promote business-friendly agendas .
The call to address ‘youth unemployment’ as opposed to unemployment, in general, is also a testament to the widespread fear that a youth population in “Waithood” would engage in crime, violence, unrest, rioting, and that these would result in elite loss of control of society. Journalists and political officials alike have often employed the phrase “ticking time bomb” in recent years to refer to the dangers of a large unemployed youth demographic. Calling young people a “ticking time bomb” is a form of epistemic violence. When youth are framed as a liability to manage, they are not provided with opportunities to be trusted and to play constructive roles in policymaking. Instead, state, and other international actors seek to manage them rather than work with them to ensure opportunities for them to thrive. Put differently, youth have too often been defined as the problem.
International organizations, the private sector, and governments have tapped into narratives of youth empowerment to serve a political and economic agenda and conceal states’ inability to remediate the inequalities created by capitalism. Youth described as resilient, creative, and resourceful are encouraged to become entrepreneurs and pull themselves up by their proverbial bootstraps. These narratives call for an effort to tap into individual’s entrepreneurial skills within an institutional framework that provides weak financial support, safety net, or mentorship. Indeed, the “average rank of Arab countries in terms of access to credit was 130 out of 190 economies,” which puts youth at a disadvantage since they have limited credit histories and collateral. In addition, the average share of MENA youth engaged in an early stage of entrepreneurial activity is 9.3 percent, one of the lowest percentages in the world. These numbers are daunting. In Egypt, entrepreneurs are twice as likely to be driven by necessity than any other country. In Morocco, 64% of people seeing opportunities would be deterred from starting a business from fear of failure. When entrepreneurship is promoted as an adequate response to a lack of job opportunities in societies that do not provide sufficient support for such individuals to thrive, the most likely outcome is a reinforcement of existing income and wealth disparities.
This article has argued that narratives depicting labor and youth in the MENA region are powerful, have enduring consequences, and are too often negatively connotated and reductive. By embracing discourses that obscure the realities experienced by young people; states, private companies, international organizations, scholars, officials, and commentators have hidden the structural injustices those youth confront in the labor market. They also have, more importantly, compromised the capacity of many MENA youth to obtain gainful and fulfilling employment and education.
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