This column is part of the Just Jobs project at the Center for American Progress.
On December 17, 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old vegetable vendor in a small Tunisian city set himself on fire after local authorities humiliated him by confiscating his goods and his scales, the most basic of tools he used to make his living. Within days, protests spread to the capital and within weeks to neighboring countries.
Mohamed’s self-immolation served as a spark that ignited the entire Arab world because his story resonated with people throughout the region. For many, Mohamed’s humiliation and harassment at the hands of local officials epitomized the repression prevalent in many states in the region. Leeching off street vendors and those with small businesses struggling to support their households on the economic fringes is unfortunately often commonplace.
But for many others, Mohamed was the embodiment of a young “average Joe:” a man who had lost his father at the tender age of 3, who juggled part-time work and school by the time he was 10, and who had managed to support his mother and six siblings by peddling fresh produce in the informal economy. Mohamed symbolized a man who had, from the time he was a child, struggled against the odds to make a living and a life for himself and his family. The lifetime achievements of a child laborer turned adult street vendor had been accomplished despite a repressive regime in power.
Unemployed and underemployed youth
Revolutionary change is never caused by one factor. But there is little doubt that a lack of economic opportunity for a large youth population struggling to make the transition into adulthood was key in fueling the recent uprising in the region.
For several decades, the public sector was able to accommodate young workers into the labor force. Previous generations of university graduates in the Arab region were able to obtain stable, decently paid public-sector jobs—part of a social contract between modern Arab states and youth. But demographic change and the pressure to downsize government ruptured the social contract. Across the Arab world more and more young, educated women are also entering a labor market that is unable to absorb them. At the same time, calls for “smaller government” have led to a freeze on public sector funding and fierce competition for fewer jobs.
Ending up in the informal economy?
The lack of good jobs and stagnated economic growth means it’s taking longer and longer for young people to establish themselves in the labor force. The lack of opportunities for youth from families of modest means, those like Mohamed Bouazizi who lack the connections to compete for the remaining or privatized jobs, has pushed many into the informal, or unregulated, economy to work as street vendors. There they find no social protection, no pension or disability insurance, and a world of work that is vulnerable to corrupt authorities.
Without a just job, it’s hard to save money for housing, further education, marriage, and starting a family of one’s own. The latter is not luxury, but in most societies it is a social imperative and a measure of social worth. But social norms have been slow in adjusting to these challenging economic realities facing young men in particular.
Many youth still support their ailing parents and younger siblings well into their late 20s and 30s before they manage to save their own nest egg for their own households. Over the past few decades, Egypt, for example, has had a huge cohort of young men who have simply been unable to afford the necessary housing to allow them to marry and have their own children and families.
Families with more means generally support and assist their children in making this transition by helping out with the costs of higher education, a wedding, or housing. There are disconcerting signs, however, that many families are also reaching the end of their financial ropes. Suad Joseph, a renowned anthropologist and specialist on Arab families, recently said that families in the Middle East are urging and pushing their adult children to travel to Europe and North America because they cannot foresee opportunities for their kids at home.
Once the protests subside and regimes are toppled, reformed, and hopefully democratized, a key test of those in power will be their commitment and effort to placing youth and their families at the heart of a political and policy agenda that provides enough just jobs and economic opportunity and mobility
Laura E. Mitchell is a researcher at the Fafo Institute for Applied International Studies who works on livelihoods, gender, youth and families in the Middle East and Central Asia.
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