It was the British Council, Islamabad, that informed us four years ago that we are a youthful nation, with more than 60 per cent of our population under the age of 29. Its research also told us that we’d already entered a crucial period of around 50 years in which we could become a prosperous country on the strength of the sheer number of working hands, like South Korea and China have done before us.
But demographic dividend doesn’t come for free, it cautioned us. The nations that have in recent history benefited from a youth bulge did so by putting their young ones in schools and technical training institutes. If we fail to channelise this great reserve of energy, the consequence is not just a passive waste of opportunity, but active anarchy and bedlam on our streets.
In recent weeks, the British Council has come up with a follow-up research on youth that tells us that we are now a little more advanced on the path to destruction. We have failed to fix our education system and we have failed to provide opportunities for advancement. More and more young men and women are likely to be illiterate or semi literate and jobless or under-employed as they enter adulthood; less and less is the level of motivation, innovation and entrepreneurship; and pessimism is fast becoming a defining trait of the next generation.
In 2009, Pakistan’s youth felt they lacked the skills they needed to prosper in the modern world and, even the well-qualified were struggling to find decent work. Disillusion with the political system was high as young people lost faith in core institutions. They felt angry about corruption and the failure of their leaders to bring about positive change.
Today they seem to have all but given up on Pakistan. A good 94 per cent believe things in Pakistan are headed in the wrong direction, nearly 70 per cent have no trust in the federal government and political parties, half of them hold unfavourable opinions on provincial governments, assemblies and police force, and only one in five thinks their personal economic situation could improve next year.
Middle class now makes up a quarter of Pakistan’s population (upper class is made up of two per cent of population while the rest falls in lower class), with more than 40 per cent of urban dwellers falling into this bracket. This makes middle class a powerful economic, social and political force, especially in towns and cities. Nearly a quarter of the middle class now belongs to the next generation of youth – aged 18 to 29 years.
Dr. Durr-e-Nayab, Chief of Research at the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics, has used a multi-dimensional index based on data that is drawn from the Pakistan Social and Living Standards Measurement Survey 2010-11 to define middle class Pakistanis as ‘people likely to live in a house where at least one person has a college education and where the head of the household is in non-manual work; have incomes at least double the poverty line; own reasonably spacious houses and a range of consumer goods.’
Based on a nationally representative survey of young people, an open source consultation, academic background papers, and a review of published data and evidence – the report found an overwhelming majority of youth naming Jinnah as their hero and source of inspiration. This points to the leadership vacuum felt by the youth of today. No personality has captured their imagination enough to command their trust and affection, in the past half a century.
It also tells us Pakistan’s biggest problem is inflation – and the related issue of lack of electricity, water, and gas – (44 per cent), followed by unemployment (19 per cent) and law and order (11 per cent). Anyone in their late teens or twenties today has been shaped by the surge in prices that began in 2004 and intensified in 2008, when inflation hit 25 per cent. Hunger is a fact of life for large number of families, with 58 per cent not sure they will be able to buy enough food in the coming weeks, and half of these suffering hunger on a regular basis. Two thirds of Pakistani children fail to get enough food to grow normally, with more than one in five severely stunted. Nearly four in five young people report worsening access to fuel and electricity since 2008.
More than 70 per cent see religious centres as trustworthy. Three quarters of women describe themselves as religious or conservative and nearly two thirds of men. Even in urban areas, only a third of young people say they are moderate or liberal. What the liberals call Talibanisation or radicalisation of the society is merely growing conservatism across the country which is brought on by the youth’s need for stability and security, and their wish for a value system that secular parties have failed to deliver.
News media and judiciary is trusted way more than politicians. Army remains the most trusted institution with an approval percentage of 77. This indicates that the young ones are not buying into the politicians’ excuse that army and judiciary doesn’t let them govern.
Regardless of the cultural, ethnic and economic differences the opinions and beliefs of youth are broadly consistent throughout Pakistan. Men and women, and urban and rural young people are equally pessimistic, for example.
This is the portrait of our next generation that is expected to play a pivotal role in next month’s general elections and will in the long run, set the direction of the country. Suppose our next government is as weak, inept and corrupt as the ones before it, where do you see this huge bulk of misdirected youthful energy going five years from now? Will blaming the military, politicians, right or left wing, democracy etc. make the outcome any less painful for us? It’s our children we are talking about, can we afford to give up on their future? Faced with an historic urgency can we continue to buy into the theory of ‘sluggishness of democracy’ that enables the crooked ‘democrats’ to buy more time to steal state resources?
At stake is not just democracy and the credibility of state institutions, it’s our future and that of our coming generations. Pakistan’s population will peak in about fifty years’ time at around 285 million, 61 per cent higher than today, with nearly half of Pakistanis older than forty, and the number of those older than 65 – currently eight million – will have risen to over 40 million and it will keep climbing steeply for the rest of the century.
The demographic window will start to close around mid-century, as the proportion of workers in the population starts to fall.
We have two other countries within our region facing the same demographic opportunity/disaster – Bangladesh and Nepal. Right now all three seem equally unprepared for the challenge and are therefore competing for the unfortunate distinction of being the first country to grow old without seeing prosperity. ————————————————————————————————————————————————
Masud Alam is an Islamabad-based writer, columnist and journalism trainer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org ————————————————————————————————————————————————
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