At 28 years old, Mussarat already has four children. The eldest is 10 and the youngest is just six months old. She begins her morning by rushing to a water pump to collect water in plastic cans for her home where there is not enough running water. She rushes back home to send her two older children to school and her husband to work, and then locks in her two younger children at home before rushing off to work as a cleaning lady at a home in Clifton.

And if you ask her, this is not how she had ever dreamt it. None of it.

“I was forcibly married off,” she says while talking about her husband who works as a garbage collector in a local municipality. “But soon after, I got caught in a cycle of abuse. We’d argue with each other, he’d beat me up and not leave money at home for food. The pregnancies came one after the other and my health suffered too.”

Today, her life seems to be about unending drudgery. After working non-stop sweeping, mopping, dusting, washing, ironing and folding, she rushes home to check on the toddlers locked inside, unsupervised. Then she hurries over to pick her children from school, brings them home, and cooks lunch to feed them. At home, the drudgery of housework is repeated once more but this time, for herself and her young family.

Illiterate, unemployed and without a productive skill set — young Pakistanis’ anxieties and frustrations are approaching boiling point

Her husband works as a garbage collector and does not bring home even the small amount he earns; rather, she has to give him part of her salary.

Musarrat’s list of grievances is long but none of it unjust. Firmly lodged at the bottom rung of the ladder of Pakistan’s youth, there seems to be no way up in her lifetime. The only thing she can do is fight tooth and nail to educate her children and empower them; this is the only light in her tunnel. In some ways, she laments her kismet. In many others, the lament is over the circumstances she finds herself in.

What is constant, however, is an overbearing feeling of helplessness.

According to a recent survey, the most “stressed out” population in Pakistan are its millennials — those falling between the ages of 18 and 33 years old. This is a flaming red flag: Pakistan is the fifth largest ‘young country’ in the world. A recent United Nations Population Fund report makes the claim that out of 200 million people, 63 percent of Pakistan’s population comprises of youth. Of these, 58.5 million are 20-to-24-year olds while 69 million are aged under 15. Stress can be fatal, and if the majority of youth is being pushed into stress, surely there is something wrong in the way that society is bringing up its youth?


In a blog for the World Bank, economist Justin Yifu Lin explains that a youth bulge starts forming when infant mortality has been reduced but mothers still have a high fertility rate. As a result, a large share of the population is comprised of children and young adults.

“In a country with a youth bulge, as the young adults enter the working age, the country’s dependency ratio — that is, the ratio of the non-working age population to the working age population — will decline,” explains Lin. The economist argues that a youth bulge can either become a demographic dividend or a bomb, depending on how population is employed in productive activities.

“If the increase in the number of working age individuals can be fully employed in productive activities, other things being equal, the level of average income per capita should increase as a result. The youth bulge will become a demographic dividend,” writes Lin.

“However, if a large cohort of young people cannot find employment and earn satisfactory income, the youth bulge will become a demographic bomb, because a large mass of frustrated youth is likely to become a potential source of social and political instability.”

In Pakistan today, whereas one would expect the younger population’s potential to be harnessed for higher productivity and economic growth, the situation is quite the opposite. As the case of Musarrat shows, the anxieties and frustrations of young Pakistanis are varied and complex. A youth bulge that was growing for the past many years has now become obese. And going by Lin’s argument, since the youth’s unemployment rate is high, our country is sitting on a demographic time bomb.

Central to the discussion is literacy and employment.

The UNESCO Institute for Statistics estimated in 2016 that around 25 percent of the Pakistani youth is illiterate whereas 8.2 percent is unemployed with no vocational and technical skills. Access to education remains low in the country with completion rate for primary education among the lowest in the world. Even then, the state spends only 2.2 percent of its budget on education as compared to the 3.6 percent fiscal spending on defence.

Given the disparity in numbers, it follows then that the young generation are facing a multitude of challenges; some crucial, others marginal and some even self-imposed. The stressors for our youth include a range of social, cultural and economic factors, including limited education, health and employment opportunities. A majority of them complain about an unfavourable and hostile environment where only the fittest can survive. It is evidently supported by the statistics that rank Pakistan 147 out of 188 countries in the Human Development Index, lower than many developing countries in South Asia.

Part of the reason for the status quo is multiple educational systems for different social classes. These graduates often lack exposure and rigor — a direct product of the obsolete, theory-based education system as practiced in Pakistan. Tutelage revolves around rote learning and information gathering rather than aptitude building and problem solving.

In terms of employment, The Pakistan Economic Survey (PES), 2015-16 estimates that the total labour force increased from 59.7 million in 2012-13 to 61 million in 2014-15. This is around the time that reverse migration of educated Pakistanis started becoming visible. Meanwhile, the total number of employed people increased from 56.0 million to 57.4 million in this period, signifying the induction of 1.4 million citizens into the productive workforce.

The PES also makes the claim that fewer than 4 million citizens are unemployed — although figures from the ongoing census will help validate and quantify that claim. The overall unemployment rate decreased from 6.2 percent in 2012-13 to 5.9 percent in 2014-15. In rural areas, unemployment got slashed from 5.1 percent to 5.0 percent, while in urban areas it decreased from 8.8 percent in 2012-13 to 8.0 percent in 2014-15. (Social scientists, argue, however that official numbers are underestimating the scale of unemployment.) According to the PES, higher rates of unemployment in urban areas are mainly because of increasing rural-urban migration without a corresponding increase in jobs in the cities; and secondly, because industrial development has not yet reached a point where it can absorb great numbers of working populations.

The outcome is therefore a society reeling from the remnants of agricultural and caste-based social hierarchies on the one hand, while dealing with the urban pressures of aggressive neoliberalism on the other. In turn, this breeds confusion: identity, culture and even priorities become skewed and so does the moral fibre of society.

The skills delusion

Most young Pakistanis are making things work in spite of little or no support from the government. Many end up semi-skilled and without avenues for further growth | WhiteStar
Most young Pakistanis are making things work in spite of little or no support from the government. Many end up semi-skilled and without avenues for further growth | WhiteStar

Among large swathes of our youth, a sentiment of not being given their due holds great sway. The argument is often that there should be a job available for educated youth as they graduate out of their educational institutes.

The reality, however, is far grimmer.

Many recruiters now complain that graduates from the local education system are not skilled enough in their chosen vocations. Currently, there is a big gap between educational sector and the job market in the country.

“It isn’t as if we don’t enough get applications,” says one media executive. “But the quality of candidates is extremely poor. What they have been taught is not good enough to cut it at this level.”

Part of the reason for the status quo is multiple educational systems for different social classes. These graduates often lack exposure and rigour — a direct product of the obsolete, theory-based education system as practised in Pakistan. Tutelage revolves around rote-learning and information-gathering rather than aptitude-building and problem-solving. The new national youth strategy has rightly identified the gap and suggested early career counselling and vocational guidance programs, starting from secondary schools to universities.

Waqas Shahid, a writer and director, rightly points out that the challenges of youth are varied from class to class. “In the elite, youngsters are both resourceful and relatively independent, yet they can’t thrive as they often lack vision and passion,” he argues. “These elements are found in abundance in the underprivileged class but they usually go wasted in the absence of resources and equal opportunities.”

Besides basic rights to education and employment, there are hardly enough youth clubs, activity centres and playgrounds for youngsters to engage in healthy activities, exhibit their talents and nurture their creativity. Young people therefore play on roads and pavements, express their views through wall-chalking, and loiter around aimlessly. In the currently restrained environment where worthy intellectual debates, ideological dialogue and political discourse are rare, frustrated youth often turn to social media to release their pent-up emotions and feelings.

Ahmed Rizvi, a social psychologist, elaborates: “Corporate sector, vested interest groups and political and religious parties exploit the socio-cultural gaps and offer quick, expensive and even risky solutions with grand concerts, carnivals, galas as well as political rallies, religious processions, protests and mass activism which sometimes lead to shocking incidents such as the Mashal Khan lynching.”

Based on various background conversations with young professionals, it becomes clear that our urban youth become squeezed by two kinds of pressures. On one hand are parental and peer pressure related to academics, career, marriage, beliefs and customs — their cumulative effect tends to be bulldozing budding spirits. On the other hand, however, a segment of youth exists that wants to achieve everything instantly without any effort. This segment largely belongs to the more affluent classes.

The dichotomy between the two — such as ostentatious flouting of wealth and power versus the laborious struggle to survive — creates fragmentation and frustration in society.

“Why does one set of rules exist for the privileged and another for the under-privileged?” rhetorically asks Mohammad Murtaza Ali, a college-going student from a peri-urban area in Karachi. According to him, access to opportunities is greatly skewed. “I graduated last year but have spent about nine months now running from pillar to post to find employment. Nobody is willing to even read your CV anymore if you live in a certain locality.”

To prevent such disenchantment, the Higher Education Commission (HEC) of Pakistan has begun emphasising academia-industry linkages, encouraging projects revolving around real-life issues and field exposure and internships for the faculty to bridge the distance between the existing education system and industry. In Canada, for example, cooperative education or co-op is given preference in some universities since it combines classroom-based education with practical work experience. By the time a student graduates, they are already industry-ready.

Similarly in Germany, there are two tracks of education — after high school, depending on a student’s abilities and aptitude, you are either encouraged towards university or towards vocational education. Recently organisations such as the Aman Foundation have stressed a great deal on promoting vocational education but generally not enough attention has been given towards this.

Co-op seems a million miles away in Pakistan but what is slowly beginning to happen is that universities are encouraging and incubating their students to develop start-ups. These include institutions such as the Institute of Business Administration, the Lahore University of Management Sciences and even the Ghulam Ishaq Khan Institute of Science and Technology.

“The HEC is supporting around 49 offices of research innovations and commercialisation (ORIC) in universities nationwide where creative students and faculties are funded for their innovative startup projects,” says HEC chief Dr Arshad Ali. “There are currently around 84 such university projects in progress which are in collaboration with the industrial sector under the Technology Development Fund.”

Dr Ali explains that next in the HEC’s agenda are technology parks which will create an enabling environment for young entrepreneurs to start their own tech-based ventures and attract international business outlets for collaboration and funding. One such project at the NUST has already been approved in consultation with the Malaysian government, two more are in the planning stage, while HEC plans to build seven such parks across the country to provide better employment alternatives for the future generation.

“The future of Pakistani youth lies in entrepreneurship and tech-based education which enables them to create employment opportunities for themselves as well as for others,” argues Dr Ali.

Not everyone can be an entrepreneur, however, and society will still need people to do the nitty-gritty jobs such as running machines, plumbing, electrical, nursing etc. But in Pakistan, dignity of labour is almost non-existent. There is an urgent need to accord respect to various professions, no matter how ‘lowly’ or the youth will only want to go for the ‘big’ jobs — in itself, this dichotomy will breed frustration.


Despite the promise of tech entrepreneurship, however, it cannot in and of itself be the answer to the scale of the problem at hand. On the surface are issues of the low number of youth employed by tech companies and the associated problem of limited tech education. But dig deeper and you’d appreciate that the state cannot be a silent bystander anymore and it cannot outsource the problem to non-state actors — the problem is systemic and spans the entire country.

Talking about the prerogative role of the government when it comes to the youth bulge, Leila Khan, the chairperson of the Prime Minister’s Youth Programme, argues that the state cannot provide jobs and competitive education to everyone. “We are, however, working in close liaison with the public and the private sectors especially with NGOs and vocational and professional training institutes, to provide optimum training and hiring opportunities for our youth,” she claims.

The incumbent government introduced the current youth programme in September 2013. Discussing the vision behind its core six schemes, Khan explains that their focus is on three crucial areas: entrepreneurship, skill development through vocational training and internship for better employment, and financial support for higher education to the underprivileged youth.

“The current youth programme has already benefitted around two million youngsters from across the country,” claims Khan. “This includes 62 percent women through various initiatives.”

Interest-free and business loans were introduced under the current policy to support educated, unemployed youth in all four provinces who want to establish or extend their businesses. Many of the beneficiaries, Khan stated, have already started their independent, small businesses to support their families, and earn enough to return their loans and even employ others — the ripple effect of establishing and supporting small and medium enterprises (SME) sectors.

In June 2016, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) approached the PM’s youth program for the development of a National Youth Employment Strategy which, currently, is in its initial planning phase. As the strategy draft indicates, it focuses on youth who are neither in education, employment or training for a year. Besides, it targets women, ethnic minorities, rural economies, disaster-prone areas, and downtrodden districts with lowest human development indicators.

The ILO has recommended the development of a harmonised youth employment strategy for Pakistan. This entails bringing together all existing projects, programmes and institutions working for youth employment, education and training, entrepreneurship, microfinance and social protection of youth rights, under one umbrella for coherence and optimum outcomes.

The strategy recommends the formation of strategic working groups at provincial and regional levels to oversee all relevant programs for employment outcomes and a unit within the provincial planning and development departments for a comprehensive analysis of existing and emerging employment sectors.

“We intend to promote overseas employment opportunities by systematic compilation and sharing of data with TEVTAS to align their training programs in line with the international requirements,” says Naveed Illahi, deputy secretary of the youth programme. The introduction of entrepreneurship programs in secondary schools and training institutes, engagement of microfinance institutions for business start-ups and business facilitation centres alongside road shows and investment conferences are the key initiatives on this agenda.

Though the current national youth programme is a good initiative, it seems to have had a limited impact on the large youth population of the country with slow implementation and weak linkages to the relevant sectors both at the regional and provincial levels.

Dr Zaman, a research professor, Quaid-e-Azam University, fears that the state’s failure to harness the youth bulge in the next few years will ultimately lead to economic stagnation, increasing recruits for militancy, social unrest and political conflicts.

Suggesting a remedy, he says, “Youth partnership through education, employment, engagement, and empowerment can be the only way forward to address the increasing challenges in the country.”

Erum Hafeez is a lecturer at the Institue of Business Administration, Karachi

Sajida Ali is a freelance journalist

Published in Dawn, EOS, June 25th, 2017



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