Monday, February 21, 2011

The Middle East's Demographic Destiny

The so-called “arc of revolution” sweeping across the Middle East and North Africa has some demographers feeling smug. In Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Jordan, and Lebanon the population ages 15-29—a key group for demographers—is very large, about 41-50 percent of all adults ages 15-59. No matter where you’re born, this life period is significant because during this time young adults expect to finish their education, get a job, get married, maybe start a family, and have some say in the way they are governed. As many have noted, the problem in each of these countries is that the desires of young adults are being dashed as they are shut out of economic, political, and even social opportunities. The result is all over the headlines.

Aside from structural failures like corruption and inattention of politicians to creating jobs, why are young people so disadvantaged? The answer lies in demography. Opportunities for young adults are limited in these countries because of what demographers refer to as “cohort crowding,” a situation that results when an age group, in Tunisia’s case those ages 25-29, is significantly larger than the preceding age group. Generally, jobs cannot be created fast enough to keep pace with this demographic bump, so those in the large cohorts are “crowded” out of the labor market. This situation turns into protest and violence when youth from large cohorts fall short of the living standards of preceding generations, which are smaller. In 2009 Pew Global Attitudes survey, 50 percent of respondents ages 18-29 in Egypt said they thought children born today would be worse off than their parents. In Jordan and Lebanon, 38 and 40 percent, respectively, of respondents had a similarly depressed attitude.

This attitude is common in the Middle East, where cohort crowding is particularly acute Decades of free and open admission to university, rent control, progressive taxation, and universal health care led to a bloated public sector in many states and created barriers to growth in the private sector. For example, Egypt’s system of guaranteed public employment for all college graduates encouraged education but also led to a glut of well-educated job seekers. Depending on the rigidity of the labor market, youth may be the first ones let go in an economic downturn, or have a hard time competing for scarce jobs when their skills and experience fall short of those of older generations. Increasing youth unemployment, costly housing, and opportunities to continue education have become barriers to marriage, creating yet another source of frustration. Because the cost of marriage is so prohibitive, less than 50 percent of Middle Eastern men are married by their late twenties, a significant decline since the 1990s.

There are plenty of generations of youth who are marginalized but who do not rebel. What accounts for the difference? And why are these protests breaking out now? One factor that is likely very important in recent cases is what demographers refer to as the “cohort effect,” a term that describes how certain generations are shaped by their particular place in history. Across the Middle East today, though there is some variation in demographic profiles among the region (some countries are slightly younger than others) similar uprisings are occurring. The sense of collective discontent and the sense that protest is a valid and potentially successful way to address those grievances is no doubt fueled by social media and the internet. To put the age structure and cohort perspectives together, we might say that demography primes the pump, but historical circumstances start the flow of revolution.

The death of Mohamed Bouazizi, the 26-year old Tunisian who set himself afire in front of a government building on December 17, 2010, is symbolic of the problems young adults face in the Middle East today. It is not a stretch to see Mr. Bouazizi’s act of self-immolation as a desperate response to a feeling of powerlessness against the government, a sentiment shared by many young adults across the Middle East. States with high proportions of youth need to focus on policies that engage youth in areas where they are currently marginalized. They must provide opportunities for political expression, an economy that will utilize young workers of all skill levels, higher education, and social freedoms. All of these are scarce in a country with large proportions of young adults.

We should expect overall population age structure, stage in life, and historical cohort experiences to continue to matter in the region. Yemen’s population is projected to double by 2050 and even Saudi Arabia’s population will grow by 50 percent by 2035. As long as young adults have the desire to engage in political, social, and economic opportunities, but are crowded out of those, there is the fodder for rebellion. Even though many of the protests of today will not be successful for a range of political factors, including the response of the administrations, demography means there is a greater likelihood there will continue to be violent and intense political pull and demands from the younger generations for jobs and political representation.