Our failure to take into consideration the aspirations of the youth has left us with little to offer them and a constricting space for them to experiment
istory tells us that Socrates calmly drank hemlock when the city of Athens sentenced him to death on various charges – corrupting the youth was the prime one, among others. It had been his favourite hobby to walk to the agora at dawn, sit there till dusk, and talk to strangers. The topic of discussion would always be some abstract idea and the audience was, more often than not, the youth of Athens, sons of aristocratic families smitten by his charm. In the late eighteenth century, the youth of France made history when they took to the streets in thousands to demand a say in deciding their fates and future. What ensued gave birth to the idea of democracy – the echoes of which are palpable to this date in all corners of the globe. In our own land our grandparents and their grandparents lined up against the oppressors until the creation of Pakistan. These are but a few glimpses of great movements in history where the youth played a pivotal role in shaping the history through their uncorrupted zeal and brave collective action.
Against this backdrop, one is tempted to ask if the much talked about youth bulge in Pakistan offers an opportunity or a challenge? I think the question itself is premised on a false dichotomy. The options to answer this question should include an opportunity, a challenge, both or none. I will give my answer later. As a sociologist, I will first explain what we mean by “youth bulge”. Some people might assume that the youth are a neatly defined, socially undifferentiated, homogenous group. Nothing is farther from the truth. I maintain that what we call the youth is instead a variegated, unequal, diverse, complex mix of citizens with unlimited potential and muffled voices that we need to hear.
According to the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics, around 82 million or nearly 40 percent of our population is between 15 and 39 years of age. Out of this, 25 million (roughly 30 percent) are employed, 13.4 million (16.3 percent) are students; a shockingly large number 34.7 million (42.1 percent) are affiliated with housekeeping sector as housemaids, drivers, gardeners, guards etc – mostly low-wage jobs. In terms of geographical location, 61 percent are rural based and 39 percent urban based.
Even if we discount for the first group (15-19), the numbers show an abysmal trend. While we are already the country with the second highest number of out of school children, it is disturbing to see that only 30 percent of our youth are employed, notwithstanding the kind of disparity in the pay structure and cost of living. One can imagine the amount of frustration, anxiety and anger among the rest of the youth. In rural settings as well as cities, the wage gap, life-style differences and educational gap are widening. So, what do they want to become if they are given the chance? The question needs to be taken seriously and addressed immediately. Unfortunately, we have failed our youth as we have not offered them much. The space for them to experiment is shrinking with every passing day.
From a sociological perspective, a staggeringly large number of poorly qualified and unskilled youth poses a human capital challenge. To put it simply, it means that the state has to grapple with the burden of a) feeding (food security), and b) providing work to such a large number of people. With a global recession looming over the horizon and Pakistan’s diminishing ability to sustain its economy, I ask if what we call an opportunity is in reality not a daunting challenge that the state can neither shy away from nor adequately rise up to.
We can no longer deny that the high rate of population growth is one of the biggest challenges we face. No economic model, state policy or external help can replace the much needed but mostly absent societal urge for uplift. I contend that to survive the challenge the collective will, and the inherent resilience must translate into consistent social action, both at the level of the state and the society.
To answer the question whether it is an opportunity or a challenge, I say it is both. Let me explain through an analogy. Suppose you have a vast piece of cropped land ready for harvest. If you do not have the means to harvest it on time, it will rot away and turn into an insurmountable challenge. But if proper care is taken to harvest it at the right hour, it can turn into an opportunity of a lifetime. Likewise, if we do not pay heed to the aspirations of the youth at this hour, this may turn into a ticking bomb like it has done in many other societies. If, on the other hand, we are able to come together to address the most pressing issues of the youth, i.e., education, providing jobs, diversifying the economy, establishing links between academia and industry, and creating entrepreneurial activities, I do not see why we cannot, like our elders, achieve the ‘unthinkable’, the ‘unbelievable’ and the ‘unattainable.’
The writer is an assistant professor at the Department of Governance and Global Studies at the Information Technology University. He has a PhD in development studies from the University of Bonn