Future imperfect

Published April 12, 2022
The writer is a journalist.
The writer is a journalist.

IN his address to the nation on the evening of April 8, the now former prime minister Imran Khan called upon the youth to take to the streets and to make the ‘right’ choices.

The essence of his appeal can be understood as having three main threads: 1) a recognition of the power fielded by the young of the country; 2) the seriousness with which they take their self-respect (the way to which is paved with economic self-sufficiency); and 3) their ability to make an informed choice (which depends on access to education of a quality that makes an informed choice possible).

To proceed through an anthropological lens: the future belongs to the young, and, as we all know, that’s most of Pakistan.

I’m choosing to quote UN statistics here, but the same reality, more or less, is reflected by most other data-gathering sources, including the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics and the World Bank. Currently, our population stands at some 229 million people. Of these, five per cent are aged 65 and older, and 61pc are aged between 15 and 64. And of the latter, to break it down further age wise, 30pc are between the ages of 10 and 24, while 34pc are in the 0 to 14 category.

Our youth — our future — are caught between a horrible rock and a hard place.

The 61pc mentioned form the bulk of the electorate. And by many accounts, interpretations and analyses, this age group accounts for quite a bit of the force behind the narrative of a desire for a break from past politics. So, the youth wields immense power, and has an overwhelming stake in the course upon which this country is set.

Second comes their sense of self-worth, the way to which is smoothed by economic self-sufficiency. So, an anecdote: back in the mid-1970s, Tanzania was a struggling nation while Pakistan was doing well. So well, in fact, that for urban development/planning advice and input, Tanzania asked Pakistan’s Capital Development Authority (CDA) for manpower. One such young Pakistani architect was surprised by a bit of information that his boss in this unfamiliar country referred to often with absolute matter-of-factness: the boss’s profession and aspiration was creating the shape of his country’s urban landscape; his father’s profession was selling bananas by the side of the road. As this sort of background would, in his own country’s culture, be kept under wraps — be considered shameful — the Pakistani couldn’t help but inquire. The answer he received was, “We both work for an honest living. That is what he does. This is what I do.”

By contrast: at the office of a small-time property developer in a semi-urban town in Punjab, I encountered a fresh-faced young man whose job was to serve tea, do the dusting, etc. He is just one face amongst the millions like him in circumstances that will likely prove a dead-end. He is literate, but dropped out of school at the cusp of Grade 8. He earns Rs10,000 a month.

His father sells vegetables. The roadside cart is his only owned asset. The parent turns in a profit of Rs600 to Rs1,000 a day, according to the son. Asked why he didn’t follow in his father’s footsteps, the young man was shocked: manual labour? There’s no dignity, it’s shameful. And I, I went to school, I have an indoors job.

Which bring us nicely to the third point, which is obvious: the ‘education’ the bulk of the country’s young get (those that manage to first enrol at all, and then stay enrolled) is not worth its grandiose name. I have no space here for the stats, but they are well known. We have on our hands millions of barely literate, uneducated young people, in the sense of being able to think creatively, assess and analyse, solve problems, etc. These young will in time acquire more mouths to feed, against the backdrop of a slow glo­bal economy and a domestic inflationary spiral.

Our youth — our future — are cau­ght between a horrible rock and a hard place.

On the one hand, they are ri­­g­htly taught to aspire for education and self-improvement. But then, the state has consistently, over many decades, cheated them by providing education that simply will not do. The state has short-changed them, again and again. On the other hand, we have also seen the strengthening of the choking narrative where being a son of the soil is something to be shunned, to be ashamed of, to sneer at.

Thus we see sons refusing to follow in the footsteps of their father in a number of professions — ironically, those in which a future could viably be built. Consider: the handmade khussa or handwoven carpets are dying arts. But internationally they are being replicated by the biggest brands, and constitute premium products. My son aspires to set up a khussa-making factory, but he will not stoop to the level of stitching one himself.

It’s a truly unenviable, frightening picture, that of our youth’s predicament.

The writer is a journalist.

hajrahmumtaz@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, April 12th, 2022

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