Generation In Waiting

Generation In Waiting

by Navtej Dhillon

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Young people in the Middle East (15–29 years old) constitute about one-third of the region's population. Growth rates for this age group trail only sub-Saharan Africa. This presents the region with an historic opportunity to build a lasting foundation for prosperity by harnessing the full potential of its young population. Yet young people in the Middle East


Young people in the Middle East (15–29 years old) constitute about one-third of the region's population. Growth rates for this age group trail only sub-Saharan Africa. This presents the region with an historic opportunity to build a lasting foundation for prosperity by harnessing the full potential of its young population. Yet young people in the Middle East face severe economic and social exclusion due to substandard education, high unemployment, and poverty. Thus the inclusion of youth is the most critical development challenge facing the Middle East today.

A Generation in Waiting portrays the plight of young people, urging greater investment designed to improve the lives of this critical group. It brings together perspectives from the Maghreb to the Levant. Each chapter addresses the complex challenges facing young people in many areas of their lives: access to decent education, opportunities for quality employment, availability of housing and credit, and transitioning to marriage and family formation. This volume presents policy implications and sets an agenda for economic development, creating a more hopeful future for this and future generations in the Middle East.

Selected contributors include Ragui Assaad (University of Minnesota), Brahim Boudarbat (University of Montreal), Jad Chaaban (American University in Beirut), Nader Kabbani (Syria Trust for Development), Taher Kanaan (Jordan Center for Public Policy Research and Dialogue), Djavad Salehi-Isfahani (Wolfensohn Center for Development and Virginia Tech), and Edward Sayre (University of Southern Mississippi).

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Brookings Institution Press
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The Unfulfilled Promise of Young People in the Middle East


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ISBN: 978-0-8157-0314-3

Chapter One


Generation in Waiting: An Overview of School to Work and Family Formation Transitions

Representing the largest birth cohort in the history of the Middle East, the young men and women born between 1980 and 1995 are now coming of age and entering adulthood. Today, more than 100 million individuals between the ages of 15 and 29 live in the Middle East, up from less than 67 million in 1990. They make up 30 percent of the region's population and nearly 47 percent of its working- age population. Much has been promised to this generation in terms of better quality of life and greater prosperity; however, many of these promises remain elusive.

As the Middle East's youth population has grown, young people have increasingly struggled with securing critical milestones in their transition to adulthood. Across the region, education systems have failed to prepare young people for changing roles in the economy. Labor market outcomes have remained poor, with young people enduring high rates of unemployment and low- quality jobs. Delays in marriage and family formation are now common in many countries. Moreover, with limited progress in improving the quality of education and job creation, the challenges that afflict today's young people now risk being passed on to future generations.

Young people in the Middle East experience different economic, political, and social realities depending on where they grow up. Obvious distinctions include the extent to which countries rely on hydrocarbon rents, their integration with the global economy, and their levels of stability and peace. Furthermore, youth is not a homogeneous social category: gender and family income significantly influence young people's transitions. This heterogeneity is captured well by the eight country studies presented in this volume.

In this chapter, we provide a framework for understanding the common challenges facing the Middle East's young generation and how institutional reforms can lead to substantial improvements in their lives. The chapter begins by analyzing how life courses within Middle Eastern societies have been transformed in response to economic and social changes in the twentieth century. It then focuses on the interrelated challenges facing young people in their education, employment, and family formation transitions. Next, we illustrate how the institutions that govern education systems, the labor market, and family formation have failed to mediate young people's transitions, leaving them in essence as a generation in waiting. In the final section, we outline guiding principles for improving transitions for young people across the Middle East.

The Middle East's Three Life Courses

One useful way to understand the lives of young people in the Middle East is to place the temporal phase of "youth" in a larger life course framework. A life course comprises critical transitions and trajectories such as schooling, career, family, and retirement. This framework recognizes human development as a lifelong process that is shaped by individual agency, the time and place in which individuals come of age, and the opportunities and constraints of their environment. Furthermore, success in one's life is cumulative: opportunities are amplified or diminished by development outcomes in early life, especially during adolescence and youth.

The life course perspective, as it applies to young people in the Middle East, focuses largely on the school-to-work transition and the work-to-family formation transition. It draws attention to the prevailing institutions in the education system and to markets for labor, housing, and credit as well to social norms, all of which shape young people's life course. To understand the exclusion of young people, it is critical to assess how life courses, and the key institutions that support these life courses, have evolved over time in the Middle East in response to demographic pressures, and periodic prosperity and economic downturn.

Today, the Middle East is characterized by three major life courses: the traditional life course, the welfare life course, and the post-welfare life course. These life courses coexist, undergoing ebbs and flows in response to external and internal changes over time and with increases in population. The traditional life course has declined as a result of economic advancement; the welfare life course remains dominant though increasingly inadequate and the post-welfare life course is underdeveloped. The growing incongruity between these life courses, and the related failure of existing institutions to mediate the transitions of young people, have paved the way for a generation in waiting.

The Traditional Life Course

In the traditional life course, found mostly in rural Middle Eastern societies, individuals move directly from childhood into adulthood, a transition mediated by family and the community and one that presents young people, especially women, with few economic opportunities. This traditional life course still prevails in poorer, more rural parts of Middle Eastern countries though is less widespread as a result of economic development and modernization.

Access to formal education is often a privilege of the few because of a lack of schools in local communities and because of poverty, which pushes individuals into employment at a young age. Where primary education is available, it is largely taken up by boys rather than girls. Young men seeking jobs are limited largely to the family farm or trades in the local community; long job searches are rare because families pass on vocations and skills from one generation to the next. Young women experience different transitions: they marry early, and their roles are confined largely to family and household responsibilities, occasionally accompanied by some wage work to supplement household income.

This traditional life course characterized much of the Middle East at independence. It has been estimated that in 1950 nearly 85 percent of the region's population lived in rural areas. Educational attainment was low and illiteracy prevailed. In 1939, for example, adult illiteracy in Egypt was estimated at 99.5 percent and only 23.3 percent of 5- to 19-year-olds were enrolled in school. Even today, in countries like Morocco and Yemen, the education transitions associated with the traditional life course continue, particularly in rural areas. The adult illiteracy rate is still 47.7 percent in Morocco and 45.9 percent in Yemen. Overall, however, investments in education, poverty alleviation, and improvements in macroeconomic conditions over the past five decades have made the traditional life course less pervasive, replaced largely by the welfare life course.

The Welfare Life Course

The economic development of the Middle East following independence paved the way for the welfare life course wherein state institutions emerged as the dominant transition structures. States provided a growing population with free education, stable employment in the government and public sector enterprises, and expanding social protection mechanisms. These institutions enabled the postindependence generation to secure higher levels of socioeconomic welfare, institutionalizing stable transitions for many individuals.

In the context of the welfare life course in the Middle East, educational access increased dramatically. Net enrollment in primary education expanded from 62 percent in 1970 to 85 percent in 2003, and the gender inequalities in education inherited from the traditional life course were gradually erased. Moreover, public sector employment guarantees for high school and university graduates in countries like Egypt and Morocco encouraged young people, especially from modest backgrounds, to stay longer in school. Strong job protection provided security and steady incomes for workers and their families.

The ability of governments in the region to provide these resources was bolstered by oil production, whether directly by export revenues or indirectly by the return of workers' remittances, investments, and direct aid. However, the oil price crash in the mid-1980s and the subsequent decade-long period of economic stagnation led to a retrenchment of state institutions. At the same time, the Middle East experienced the initial increase in youth population (figure 1-1). This growing youth population imposed rising pressures on the region's education systems and led to an unprecedented growth of labor supply. Together, economic stagnation and rising demographic pressures diminished the capacity of governments to sustain the welfare life course.

Many Middle Eastern countries responded to these pressures by embracing structural adjustment and economic reforms designed to scale back state-led institutions and to stimulate private-sector-led growth. However, these reforms have been uneven and selective, retaining the embedded institutions and interests that developed under the welfare life course. Even today, Middle Eastern economies are still defined by highly centralized, government-subsidized education systems that are proving inflexible in providing skills to prepare young people for the changing global economy. Despite some contraction, the public sector continues to dominate many economies in the region and remains the workplace of choice for graduates. The ability of the private sector to grow and create jobs has remained limited, in large part because of restrictive regulatory environments.

In the context of changing demography and globalization, the welfare life course and its institutional arrangements are advancing the interests of some incumbents (adults) while excluding the majority of young citizens. As the Middle East faces a competitive global economy and huge numbers of unemployed graduates seeking salaried jobs, these institutions provide the wrong incentives and hinder economic development. To date, the economic performance of Middle Eastern countries has been poor and volatile, and the region lags behind other regions such as East Asia. This poor economic performance can be attributed partly to the lack of reforms and the related failure to move beyond the welfare life course. As a result, even the recent period of economic renewal between 2002 and 2008 did not sufficiently improve the transitions of young people.

The Post-Welfare Life Course

In the post-welfare life course, young people's transitions are based on choice, better information, and the right signals from institutions. The education transition is built on acquiring a broad range of skills as opposed to simply the degrees necessary for public sector work. Work transitions are flexible and provide productive careers in the private sector rather than government jobs. Access to capital allows young people to build credit reputations that can be leveraged toward marriage and family formation. These critical transitions are mediated by well-functioning markets, the private sector, and governments.

Because the Middle East is still transitioning from state-run to market economies, this new life course has yet to fully emerge. As a result, young people's transitions have become more complex, even stalled. They are increasingly moving from primary to secondary and higher education, but with weak skills formation. The emergence of the informal sector and the decline of the public sector have paved the way for more uncertain and unstable transitions. This is especially the case for women, who are gaining more education but participating less in the labor market than their male counterparts. Family formation is involuntarily delayed, and young people are likely to reside longer with their parents.

This leaves young people in the situation of waiting to become full adults—a state of waithood—struggling to resolve uncertainty on a number of interrelated fronts: attaining the right education, securing a quality job, and finding ways to afford the costs of family formation. Failure in one transition spills over into the next. Aside from waiting for these varying opportunities, young people are also waiting for a larger change: for a different set of institutions to emerge that can support a new life course. Most young people do not want a traditional life course; they desire the stability and certainty of the welfare life course that is no longer available to many of them; and public policy and institutions have not sufficiently evolved to help forge a new life course.

The Stalled Transition to Adulthood

In the transition to adulthood, young people are engaged in multiple, interrelated searches: for education and training that will improve their job prospects; for employment that will bolster their income and long-term career prospects; and for personal happiness and success through establishing their own families and independent lives, aided by access to housing and credit. However, young people face several obstacles in securing these critical transitions.

The Education Transition: Greater Access, Lower Quality

As part of the legacy of the welfare life course, the countries of the Middle East have invested heavily in education and human capital development. Over the past five decades, the free provision of education has contributed to a massive expansion in educational access. In recent years, investment in public education has amounted to nearly 5 percent of GDP and 20 percent of government expenditure regionally, comparing well with other developing regions. In turn, the region has seen considerable advances in educational attainment: primary education is now nearly universal across the region, and secondary enrollment has risen to nearly 75 percent on the whole (figure 1-2). Importantly, educational attainment for women has improved, even surpassing that of men in several countries.

Despite these investments in educational attainment, high dropout and repetition rates remain a concern, especially among low-income students, and low enrollment rates are common in rural areas. Further, deep inequities remain in access to higher education. Students from low-income backgrounds are more likely to end up in vocational education and training (VET) than in the academic tracks. In Jordan, 95 percent of those in the academic secondary track are from middle- and high-income backgrounds. This suggests that the region's educational systems are failing to promote equity in access even as they expand investments in underlying infrastructure.

Educational systems in the Middle East suffer in regard to the quality of education, as illustrated in the accompanying chapters in this volume and reported by international institutions. Evidence of the low quality of education in the region can be found in the low average scores for Middle Eastern students on international standardized examinations such as the Trends in International Mathematics and Sciences Study (figure 1-3).

Although most countries in the region have engaged in efforts at educational reform, many key features of regional school systems—the extent to which they are centralized, the level of accountability, the curriculum and pedagogy, and tracking mechanisms—have not been reformed sufficiently to create more fulfilling and productive education transitions. Continued dependence on rote methodologies places little emphasis on teaching critical and analytical skills. A lack of computers and other technology in the classroom means students do not learn needed technology skills. Moreover, teacher quality is limited by inadequate training in modern pedagogy, low salaries, and a lack of performance incentives, especially at the secondary education level.

High investments in expanding secondary education have proven ineffective because standards have been poor. These quality concerns extend beyond the traditional academic track to vocational education and training, despite an increase in government investment in this alternative to academic education. VET programs across the region, mostly operated by government entities, are highly fragmented in their administration. For example, in Egypt, there are 1,237 vocational training centers operated independently by 27 separate ministries or authorities. Training remains largely divorced from the needs of the private sector; not only are curricula outdated, but there are few instances in which private sector representatives play a role in curricula or program design. Thus, VET programs have developed a reputation across the region as a poor alternative to traditional education.


Excerpted from GENERATION IN WAITING Copyright © 2009 by THE BROOKINGS INSTITUTION. Excerpted by permission of BROOKINGS INSTITUTION PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Navtej Dhillon is a fellow at the Wolfensohn Center for Development at the Brookings Institution and director of the Middle East Youth Initiative. TarikYousef is dean of the Dubai School of Government and nonresident senior fellow at the Wolfensohn Center for Development at Brookings.

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