Middle East’s Dual Challenge: Youth and the Economy

Navtej Dhillon
Navtej Dhillon Former Brookings Expert

June 4, 2009

Editor’s Note: Following President Obama’s speech in Cairo, Navtej Dhillion, director of the Middle East Youth Initiative, discusses the growing number of unemployed youth and declining economy in the Middle East with Kai Ryssdal on National Public Radio’s “Marketplace.”

Kai Ryssdal: Navtej Dhillon is the director of the Middle East Youth Initiative at the Brookings Institution. And he points out that 60 percent of the people who live in the region are less than 30 years old. In Egypt alone he told me there are a million-and-a-half young people out of work and another million entering the labor market, at a time when the global economy is in shreds.

Navtej Dhillon: So you have peaking youth population, and you have a slumping economy. The combination of the two is particularly bad. Imagine a typical Middle Eastern family where there are two parents, and three young adults. The two parents are retiring. And unfortunately, the three young adults who should be working, they’re not working, and they’re living with their parents because they have no jobs, they can’t get married, they don’t have access to housing, they have no savings. And therefore, they really aren’t able to contribute to the economy of the nation as well as the economy of the household.

Ryssdal: And then there becomes eventually a political and a social problem with this as well, as you have these 20-somethings who still live with their parents.

Dhillon: Certainly, I think that unemployment early on in one’s career can have life-long impacts in terms of reduced earnings. It can lead to a sense of alienation within society. But I would say the stakes are even larger. Imagine the baby boomers growing up in the Great Depression. Because they’re able to grow up at a time of relative prosperity in the U.S., they’re able to both contribute to that prosperity and maximize it. I think in the Middle East this generation hasn’t had that opportunity. So will this generation be better off than their parents? And if not, then that regressive trend I think really imperils the prosperity of the Middle East and its place in the global economy.

Ryssdal: You mentioned Egypt, and some of the problems it’s having. Are there countries in the region, either in the Gulf region, or elsewhere in the Middle East, that are doing this well, that are managing this problem?

Dhillon: The good news here is that many countries have made tremendous investments in health and education. So you have young people who are more educated and healthier than their parents. But I would argue that it’s really hard to point to a single country where we have achieved success. I think this problem has been a challenge for almost all countries. And it has been in the past, it’s the challenge of the moment, and it will be the challenge of the future.

Listen to the full show and read the interview »