Background and Scope of the Project

During the second half of the twentieth century, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) was hit by a demographic wave that saw its youth population grow at an unprecedented rate.  This youth bulge spurred national and international debate regarding the challenges and opportunities that the youth cohort brings to the region.  The potential that young people have – either as agents of positive change or instability – was illustrated during the uprisings of the Arab Spring.

In the wake of the unrest, there is a need to expand our collective understanding of the lives of young people in the MENA region, and examine factors that affect their normative transitions to adulthood.  The narrative around Middle Eastern youth often centers on their social, political, and economic exclusion and marginalization. Living through decades of authoritarian rule and political instability, youth in the Middle East have struggled to fulfill their aspirations related to citizenship, livelihood, and social and political participation.

Given the continued jobs crisis in the Middle East, where youth generally experience high rates of unemployment and where labor market activity, particularly among young women, remains strikingly low, understanding the economic exclusion of youth and the various means by which to redress it remain significant.

In recent years, a substantial body of research has been produced that has provided a rigorous diagnosis of the economic challenges facing youth. For example, from 2007 to 2011, a network of scholars working with the Middle East Youth Initiative developed a framework for understanding outcomes for youth as they relate to education, employment, marriage and family formation. This framework leaned on a foundation built by a growing number of quantitative analysis at the country level.

Since then, the increased availability of data has improved the ability of quantitative analysis to better identify the obstacles facing the region’s youth.  Panel labor force surveys in Egypt and Jordan and School-to-Work Transition Surveys have enabled a growing body of research to more meticulously determine causality of youth exclusion, and have expanded our ability to understand youth perceptions about the opportunities open to them and their behavior as economic actors. Moreover, international organizations like the World Bank have further focused their analytical efforts on understanding outcomes for youth and have directed operational programs to be more youth inclusive.

International research consortia have also focused more systematically on the MENA region in recent years.  The sixth round of the World Values Survey (2010-2014) increased its coverage to include fourteen MENA countries; and a total of ten MENA countries participated in the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) surveys between 2009 and 2013. 

While these, as well as other efforts, have increased our collective understanding of the social and economic challenges facing youth, it is important to better learn how to put this greater understanding towards practical policy solutions and programmatic practice.  Whether one focuses on transitioning countries or countries that largely weathered the Arab Spring without significant political upheaval, there has been little progress in implementing needed reforms or significant policy changes.  Governments in more stable countries have taken steps to reinforce aspects of the traditional social contract (increasing public sector wages, subsidies, etc.) as a means of easing social unrest, while governments in transitioning countries, faced with immediate needs to ensure legitimacy, have reinforced past approaches rather than forging forward with innovative reforms.  In the meantime, economies across the region have been impacted by growing inflation, an erosion of foreign exchange reserves, and worsening security situations. In this context, the region’s youth find themselves locked in a contradiction: While the Arab Spring gave voice to the frustrations inherent in such exclusion, they continue to struggle to secure social and economic inclusion in their communities. 

While some of MENA’s recent macro-economic and political developments have created further obstacles for the region’s youth, young peoples’ responses to these constraints have differed remarkably. As such, the process by which we expand our understanding of young people should be informed by a wider perspective: the aspirations of youth and and their senses of identity as well as the economic and political contexts that confront them.

Youth lifestyles, sexualities, associational cultures, creative engagements, and networks are but a set of the multitude of ways in which the young in the Middle East assert themselves politically and culturally. For example, much like their global counterparts, this generation’s communicative culture is highly distinct from that of its predecessors, as they came of age with the rise of information communication technologies. This has translated into a communication culture that operates in a less hierarchical manner, where those that are connected are able to both consume and produce information. Growing use of social media by the young constitutes a cultural regeneration that enables them to navigate multiple languages, cultures, and communities for simultaneous economic, social, and political purposes. Similarly, as witnessed by the recent uprisings in the region, the youth have engaged in new modes of struggle that are less ideological and hierarchical.  This is indicative of a political culture that largely rejects impermeable ideological boundaries and is increasingly concerned with deliberation and diversity. 

How individuals manage the challenges they face, and how the youth mobilize collectively to deal with those overarching constraints faced in the region, are likely influenced by diverse factors related to their gendered, national, urban, tribal, cultural, and religious differences. As such, future analysis should facilitate an understanding of the nuanced complexity of the category of youth.

To further explore the underlying causes and consequences of these complexities, CIRS is launching a multi-disciplinary research initiative in collaboration with Silatech. As many of the region’s youth are contending with the effects of social and economic exclusion, this project will explore the ways in which youth manage and respond to various socio-economic and political constraints across the region, as well as the potentials of policy to support youth. Toward this end, attention will be given to the diversity of youth and socio-economic and politics contexts across the region. Additionally, this research initiative will examine the ways in which Middle Eastern youth collectively regenerate a new consciousness and forge novel methods of mobilization. Due to the varying nature of topics tackled under this research initiative, both quantitative and qualitative analysis, as well mixed methods approaches, will be encouraged. Notably, the project will actively seek to include and support young scholars from the region.    

Potential areas of inquiry addressed through this research endeavor include:

How do issues of economic inequality and perceived inequality of opportunity affect youth in the transition to adulthood?  To what extent are these inequalities embedded in social norms, especially for young women? The economic lives of many young people in the region have been marked by low rates of participation, high rates of unemployment, and increasing underemployment and informality. How can young people be empowered to move beyond the marginality and economic deprivation in which they may find themselves? How do institutions and reforms affect youth and the economic opportunities available to them? Related research questions may include: How have educational institutions and norms in curriculum and assessment shaped educational quality and the transition from school to work? What impact has public sector employment had on outcomes in education and employment, especially in countries that have undertaken structural adjustment programs? To what extent are labor market rigidities determinant in poor labor market outcomes for youth? What is the status of organized labor in the region and what role does it play in restricting opportunities for youth in the formal sector? Does entrepreneurship offer real solutions for the region’s emerging labor force? In the conflicted political space following the Arab Spring, what hopes are there for constructive civic engagement by youth and how can youth voice find greater traction in the political sphere?  In an evolving Middle East, what social convictions of the past do the youth continue to hold? What convictions indicate a break from the past, and which are evolving? What are the values that youth hold and how have they changed, particularly in regard to work and career aspirations?  In the wake of the Arab Spring, do youth seek out significant changes to the region’s traditional social contract or are their expectations still hinged to those of their parents’ generation?  How do the youth interpret, express, and accommodate religion in both secular and religious contexts? How do young religious minorities in an increasingly politically Islamist Middle East construct their identities? In different political contexts and in varying economic circumstances, how do Middle Eastern youth vocalize their opinions? How do they express their dissent? Where do youth politics take place and how do different youth sub-cultures gain saliency in countries of the Middle East? How do Middle Eastern youth compare to their global counterparts? How are their desires and aspirations similar? How do they differ? Similarly, what are some of the mechanisms of coping with exclusion that can be identified across MENA, and how do they relate to those found in other regions of the world?