Rising waters

Published April 1, 2024

YOU have to feel for Pakistan’s youth: it can’t be easy growing up in a country where the adults are just not ready to admit their time is up. For starters, they barely get heard. Even though they form the bulk of the population, the only time we see them being discussed on national TV is when decrepit politicians and shop-soiled analysts are discrediting their political choices as ‘idiotic’ or ‘immature’.

Beyond politics, it seems that Pakistan’s older generations care little for the country’s younger citizens; their dreams and aspirations, or the future they want in the country they call home. On the contrary, disdain for the young is growing so entrenched that even the word ‘youth’ has been corrupted into a slur. It’s little wonder that so many young Pakistanis these days seem obsessed with fleeing the country and its suffocating environment.

The impatience of Pakistani youth is blamed as the root cause of social upheaval; their rough mannerisms — a symptom of their growing frustration — lamented as the reason for the country’s ‘moral decline’. Though such prejudices are perhaps not uncommon among the old anywhere in the world, in Pakistan, they’re taking on a far more sinister colour.

‘Pakistan needs saving from its wayward youth’ has become a popular refrain in the corridors of power. The mantra has been used to justify denying Pakistan’s younger demographic its right to participate in the political process. Consider for a moment what the official approach towards the youth is when the most powerful adult in Pakistan framed its youth’s right to self-determination thus: “If all the children in a household want to do heroin, is the father supposed to sit by and watch?”

Older generations care little for Pakistan’s younger citizens.

Speaking of politics, for a fleeting moment after the recent general election, it seemed that Pakistan’s youth had finally arrived. The electoral results seemed like a rather spectacular announcement of their coming of age. The oversized impact of the youth vote was confirmed in a post-poll survey conducted by Gallup Pakistan, which described the average Pakistani voter in the 2024 election as “overwhelmingly young”. The political upset these young voters pulled off would not have been such a surprise had national-level planners actually been listening.

Pakistan has had a youth bulge for years. Prominent thinkers had long been highlighting that the country was in the midst of a generational shift that would dictate the trajectory of its sociopolitical, economic and cultural evolution for the next two or three decades. It was, therefore, only a matter of time before this demographic made its mark on national politics. Yet, instead of welcoming this historic shift, the forces of inertia were terrified by it. They tried desperately to ensure it remained contained. The sheer volume of young voters made it impossible. They have since been trying desperately to restore equilibrium. It will prove an uphill task.

In retrospect, it seems the boomers simply hadn’t accounted for young Pakistanis doing what young people often do when you push down on them too hard. They sullenly nod along, act as if they agree with whatever they are being told, and then turn around and do precisely that which they have been told not to. One can only imagine the satisfaction our rebellious young souls got as they watched the entire state machinery go into panic mode in desperation to undo the mischief they had caused.

But we digress. Back to our youth problem. The state, at some point, has to give in. It must realise it cannot win a war against something that has been ordained by time. Pull up any chart today showing the demographic distribution of Pakis­tan’s population, and it will show you that the battle it is waging agai­nst the youth is al­­ready lost. Milli­ons upon millions of young Pakistanis are entering legal adulthood each year and, with it, becoming entitled to the lawful means of economic and political self-determination. Writing them off, belittling them as ‘addicts’ or trying to control them by force seem to be dangerous ways of dealing with the colossal restructuring of the country’s demographic base that is currently underway.

Pakistan already belongs to its youth — the older generations just aren’t ready to accept it yet. Because of the latter’s reluctance to let go, every time the former try to forcefully assert themselves, trouble will ensue. To avoid such confrontations, the state must figure out how to keep the youth engaged and involved. Political upheaval and economic deprivation are correlated. The state must realise it cannot fight young citizens driven to desperation by their economic conditions. It needs to at least provide some reassurance that their future is in good hands. A pro-youth stance will help restore social stability. The next budget would be a good place to start.

The writer is a member of staff.

Published in Dawn, April 1st, 2024

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