Pakistan’s youth bulge offers both a challenge and an opportunity. Have we understood that?
ith almost three out of ten people in Pakistan in the 15-29 years age bracket (youth), Pakistan is one of the youngest countries in the world. For at least the next three decades, Pakistan will continue to be a ‘young’ country. Pakistan’s youth bulge is considered both a dividend and a challenge. Investing in youth and placing them at the centre of development priorities can bring huge dividends. Whereas a policy exclusion of youth, ignoring their developmental needs, or not making them part of the solution will increase Pakistan’s developmental challenges.
Before we proceed further, let me remind you of the scale of opportunities or challenges. The youth population in Pakistan equals the entire population of the United Kingdom, more than double that of Australia’s and almost double that of Canada’s. This is a highly heterogeneous group, and it isn’t easy to generalise the characteristics of Pakistani youth. However, it can be argued that compared to the Millennial Generation (born between 1981-1995), the members of Generation Z (born between 1996-2010) and Generation Alpha (born between 2011 and 2025) are far more privileged.
Let me explain how.
Generation Z and Generation Alpha were born in the age of technology. The access to mobile phones and audio-video calls over the internet means they have unprecedented connectivity. The access to private (non-state) TV channels, live-streamed broadcasts, and various social media platforms have redefined the concept of access to information (and, by the same token, access to misinformation) for today’s youth. These tools have increased their exposure to the world.
Together, the technology and the exposure have enabled them to raise all kinds of questions about possibly any individual or institution and create all kinds of networks for any imaginable cause. Coupled with laws and constitutional provisions about the right to information, this has helped them expose the corrupt and hold the powerful answerable. Simultaneously, it has enabled them to barge onto anyone’s digital device screen either for highlighting the plight of the sick, the suffering and the suppressed or for online trolling, bigotry and character assassination.
Despite the rural-urban divide and geographic inequalities, today’s youth are more educated, more food secure, healthier and empowered than those of the previous decades.
The empowered youth are migrating within and across Pakistan. Youngsters, in particular, are moving from villages to cities, thereby making Pakistan one of the most urbanised countries in the developing world – ahead of some parts of Latin America and Africa. The youngsters going and working abroad are a major contributor to remittances, which exceed Pakistan’s export earnings and provide a shock-absorber against its chronic current account deficit.
Young Pakistani emigrants play an important role in the socio-politics of their host countries. On the domestic front, the educated and, in quite a few instances, urbanised youth are proving influential and challenging the traditional power centres.
The youth, especially youngsters from urban areas of Pakistan, also play an important role in setting cultural and consumer trends. It was near taboo, for example, for a millennial (or their predecessors) to celebrate Valentine’s Day or for a florist to sell Valentine’s Day special bouquets and balloons. Despite the many road blocks, today’s youth have gained space to express their emotions and sentiments.
In their own way and as per their own understanding, the youngsters of Pakistan aspire to be part of the solution to the country’s chronic development challenges. The perception of what constitutes a challenge varies greatly depending on the individual identity of a young person. Unfortunately, many of these ethnic, geographic (rural or urban), creed, gender, and income-based identities have intrinsic inequalities. The segregation of such identities based on haves and have-nots get immediately exposed in the current age.
The very technologies that are contributing to individual empowerment, social and demographic mobility and diffusion of power, also help the marginalised and excluded youth to raise their voice and be heard (through atomisation of power) when the inequalities they face due to their identities don’t get addressed through the inclusive policies and actions of the state and the society. Governments find it difficult to understand and locate the sources of ‘trouble’ that such atomisation of power generates.
There is a lesson in the Arab Spring of 2010 on what happens if rulers don’t address the grievances of the youth. The world watched the Arab Spring unfold, gripped by the narrative of a young generation rising up against oppressive authoritarianism to secure a more inclusive political system and a brighter economic future. Collapsing economies, ignoring societal inequalities, withering away of the traditional centres of power, food and water shortages combined with environmental disasters – either in tandem or separately – led to mass protests, uprisings, and in some cases, regime changes.
The good news is that Pakistan, although struggling with a triple-C crisis (the aftermath of Covid-19, conflict and climate change), is still not at a stage where the people, especially the youth in have not groups, rise and revolt against the groups seen as having the most and the best of everything.
The bad news is that most of Pakistan’s youth are trained to see black or white. Unable to see the shades of grey, most of them are highly polarised and divided across all possible fissures. Any internal or external trigger can turn this highly energetic, highly empowered, highly atomised and highly polarised youth into an uncontrollable and unmanageable catalyst for change.
Successive governments have not done much to invest in Pakistan’s youth to ensure a better future. The consolation lies in the hope that it’s still not too late. Experts have identified three key drivers to harness the potential of young people, “quality education, gainful employment and meaningful engagement”.
I wish to add a fourth. I believe that to utilise the potential of Pakistan’s youth bulge as a positive force for transformation, we also need to nurture the spirit of co-existence in them. They need not be taught what to think but how to think. This will help them discover many shades of grey within the black and white world that was presented to them by many belonging to pre-Millennial generations.
The writer heads the Sustainable Development Policy Institute. He tweets @abidsuleri