At least one the reasons observers say the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) exploded into the Arab Spring 16 months ago was youth frustration over their prospects for jobs and economic opportunity. If so, the upheaval has done nothing to improve the situation.
In a report released on Tuesday, the International Labor Organization (ILO) said youth unemployment rose sharply last year as economic growth across most of MENA sputtered in the face of political turmoil. It estimated that in 2011, the youth unemployment rate stood at 26.5% in the Middle East and at 27.9% North Africa.
“North Africa was relatively resilient to the global economic crisis but following the Arab Spring economic growth decreased and the youth unemployment rate increased sharply by 4.9 percentage points in 2011,” the United Nations organization said in the report, which documented joblessness among people aged 15 to 24 around the world.
Youth unemployment had been falling globally for most of the last decade, but it took an abrupt turn as the worldwide financial crisis set in 2008תת and it has yet to come down again. Globally, the jobless rate for the young was 12.6%, close to its crisis peak in 2009, and is projected by the ILO to remain virtually unchanged at 12.7% this year.
While the young were being turned down for jobs or suffering layoffs, the Middle East was one of the two regions in which the youth unemployment rate actually fell from 2008 to 2009. But it turned up again in 2009 and has kept rising.
By almost every measure, the MENA region is the world’s worst place to be young and in the job market.
Youth unemployment rates have been at very high levels for decades in MENA. Today, the rate is more than double the global average for the two regions and exceeds by a wide gap the next highest region – the world’s developed economies and the European Union, where the rate has fallen the last two years to 17.6% in 2011.
The ratio of youth-to-adult unemployment rates is exceptionally high. Four times as many youth as adults are without jobs in the Middle East and at 3.9 times as many in North Africa. In addition, the gap between unemployed young men and women is enormous, with young women’s jobless rate pushing 40% in both the Middle East and North Africa.
While unemployment is high, most of the region’s young people aren’t even in the job market. The labor force participation rate for youth averages more than 50% globally, but in the Middle East is less than a third, according to the World Bank.
Indeed, the problems of jobs and opportunity are so severe in the region that demands for political reform have taken a backseat to bread-and-butter issues for MENA’s young, according to the annual ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller Arab Youth Survey.
Earning a fair wage and owning a home pushed aside living in a democracy as the greatest aspiration of regional youth, the poll of 2,500 young in 12 countries found. Fair pay was cited as the top priority for 82%, up 19 points from a year ago, while democracy was cited by 58%, down 10 points.
The latest estimates on joblessness come as Egyptians went to the polls on Wednesday to elect a president amid growing economic distress in the country. Citing preliminary data, London-based Capital Economics said this week that Egypt’s gross domestic product probably contracted 1.4% in the first quarter from the final three months of 2011.
Overall unemployment in Egypt, where more than one in five people live under the poverty line according the UN, was 12.6% at the end of March, the country’s statistics office said earlier this month.
“Looking forward, the risks to Egypt’s economy are now firmly skewed on the downside,” economist Said Hirsh noted. “Egypt’s transition has been turbulent so far which bodes poorly for the prospect of a smooth handover of power from the military council, thus increasing political uncertainty.”
But unless Egypt’s newly-elected government and other regimes in the region take proactive steps, the youth unemployment problem is going to fester. The Middle East is the only region in the world where jobless rates among the young is projected by the ILO to rise over the next four years. In the worst case scenario, the organization sees the rate climbing to 32% by 2016. The outlook in North Africa is for a mild decline.
Why are so many of the young unemployed in MENA? At a conference sponsored by the Carnegie Endowment for Peace last year, experts cited several reasons.
The first is the region’s enormous youth population, which means an unusually large number of jobs need to be created every year. MENA countries have experienced unusually high population growth over the past decades, leading to a “youth bulge” where a significant part of the population is below the age of 35.
Ibrahim Awad of The American University of Cairo said the job-creation problem was exacerbated by tepid levels of economic growth. Many of the jobs that are created are in so-called informal sectors where pay and conditions are poor and unreliable.
The region’s educational systems have done a poor job at training students for the modern job market so that even university graduates struggle to find any job, much less a position commensurate with their education, said Hana El-Ghali, from the Institute for International Studies in Education at the University of Pittsburgh.
In the Gulf, government have tried to wean their labor markets off expatriates, especially for highly skilled jobs, but employers say local are not as prepared as the foreign labor they can hire. Saudi Arabia will blacklist unemployed nationals who refuse to take jobs without good reason as part of efforts to get more Saudis working for private companies, the local Saudi Gazette daily reported last week.