The Ticking Time Bomb of Asian and Arab Youth Growth

Asia, the Pacific and the 22 Arab countries currently have 700 million youth aged 15 to 24 years old. That is 60% of the world’s youth. That group is already seriously underemployed and something must be done quickly to address that.

Photo by Preston Rhea, CC

Of that 700 million youth, 300 million come from the Arab coun­tries and 400 million are from Asia and the Pacific.

This youth population continues to grow. Asia’s popu­lation growth rate is estimated at around 1% per year, according to several projections. Fifteen years ago, when this group of youth entered the workforce, the numbers were approximately 1.24% per year. That means one can expect that another 1.24%, or another nine million new 15-year-olds, will enter this group in the coming year.

Their future is uncertain for many reasons.

One big reason is access to jobs. In a 2015 survey, some 40 million in this group, approximately 12%, were unemployed.

Even in South Korea, one of the more successful eco­nomic “engines” in the region, the jobless rate for Ko­reans aged 15 to 24 was at 11.2% as of April 2017. This is a jump of 2.5% just since December, when the number was 8.7%.

In Asia in general, an estimated 12% of the population is estimated to be unemployed overall.

In the Middle East, unemployment is even higher. The latest Arab Youth Survey 2017 puts unemployment at 30% for the same youth age group. Out of the 300 mil­lion youth number mentioned above, that means 90 million youth are unemployed in that region. In places where war is prevalent, such as Yemen, youth unem­ployment is estimated now to be at 55%.

These percentages do not show two other alarming figures. One is that youth throughout the region are over four times as likely as their parents to be unem­ployed. A second is that women throughout the region in general are far less likely to be employed period, at a rate of only 13.5% of those involved in the economy. That compares to 50% of male youth numbers. These gender gaps have also been historically increasing in South Asia over the past 10 years.

With such unemployment so rampant and growing, the long-term needs of the countries to find ways to employ and feed their people are growing at an equal­ly fast rate. That is behind a special conference to be held in Amman, Jordan, in July 2017 on the subject “From Youth Bulge to Demographic Dividend: Toward Regional Development and Achievement of the SDGs.” This meeting, the Asian and Arab Parliamentarians Meeting and Study Visit on Population and Develop­ment, is organized by the Asian Population and De­velopment Association (APDA) and the Secretariat of the Japan Parliamentarians Federation for Population (JPFP) and will be held from July 18-20.

Many issues for the region are to be discussed at this meeting, including how to handle economic growth in the face of such support demands from a growing un­employed group.

In the Middle East, damaged by long-term war and now under the influence of new challenges such as the slow decline of the fossil fuel industry and how to cope with climate change, the problems seem in­surmountable to many. In other regions such as India, whose economy is booming but whose demands for the electrical power that drives it are creating pollu­tion of historic proportions, the mix of problems are different but the difficulties for governance are no less severe. In China, a slowing but stabilizing economic force that will continue to be one of the most powerful – if not the most powerful – in the world, the pressures of how to keep its peoples employed, along with pollution management and food security, are equally difficult to manage. China, with far less arable land for agriculture on a per capita basis than other large economies, is also having to come up with far more creative solutions to keep its population properly fed.

For all these regions, one of the other rarely stated pub­licly but still worrying concerns behind closed doors is whether the presence of so many unemployed youth will create different kinds of abuses. One such abuse is the rebirth of sweatshop-like factories with individ­uals working at lower and lower wages than ever sim­ply because there are so many youth competing for the same jobs. A second is the potential that many in these ranks may look to the growing insurgent and terrorist ranks to find work of any kind. With the rise of Islamic terrorist organizations such as ISIS and the appearance of their growing power on the world stage, this is a very dangerous trend that must be addressed directly. Previous incarnations of similar things on the African continent, where youth are actively recruit­ed to be a part of armed terrorist groups in several countries, show this is a real problem that must be addressed.

There is also the concern that just living without jobs or food for long times will also create major psycholog­ical problems for those involved. The large numbers of youth affected by this are already showing signs of such strains. Long term, the impact of this mental in­stability on the region could turn into political chaos.

In the Philippines, for example, where martial law was declared not long ago in the southern province of Min­danao, a once unstable but only simmering conflict between the government and the local Islamic insur­gents and members of the Communist Party there has recently exploded into a regional war. That alone has caused major damage to foreign direct investments in the country, tourism and the Philippine budget. If that war spreads beyond the borders of that province and into the country as a whole, the potential damage to it could take decades to unravel.

Organizations looking to invest in start-ups and create start-up infrastructure have also been coming to the region to find other kinds of solutions. Aid organiza­tions worldwide have also woken up to the task, but far more needs to be done than just provide food and infrastructure to the affected regions. In some cas­es, an entirely new way of life may have to be created to find a way out of the unemployment mess for the young.

The conference coming up in Amman, Jordan, on July 18-20 definitely already has its work cut out for it.