Pakistan’s ‘youth bulge’ is very real, even palpable. 29 percent of Pakistan is between 15 and 29 years of age (our definition of youth) and as much as 64 percent is below the age of 30.
What that means is that there are a lot of young people in Pakistan, and that the number of young people will increase till about 2050, even as the proportion of older people also grows as today’s young move into middle and older age groups.
We do not need statistics to tell us that Pakistan is a young country. It is all too evident, all around us. In the workplace. On the streets. On our screens. In the content of our advertising. Even in politics. But what does it mean to be young in Pakistan today?
For the last three years, I have been consumed by this question. And it has led to one of the most fascinating intellectual journeys of my life. What we found has left me dazed, amazed, elated, disturbed, hopeful and scared. All at the same time. But, most of all, it has left me convinced that the future of Pakistan — good or bad — will be determined by those who are between 15 and 29 today. And that the young of
Pakistan are already defining that future right now.
I embarked on this journey as one of the two Lead Authors (the other being my colleague Dr. Faisal Bari) of the about-to-be-released Pakistan National Human Development Report on youth. Along with a research team of some extremely bright and dedicated young Pakistanis, we spent a lot of time listening to a lot of young Pakistanis. A lot.
We estimate that in this process we reached out to nearly 130,000 people. This included politicians, policy professionals, pundits, public intellectuals, and personalities. But most importantly, and predominantly, it was young Pakistanis we wanted to hear from. We did so through an extensive national youth perceptions survey, a youth volunteers program, an art contest, radio call-in shows, video campaigns, and youth conferences. But the richest insights came neither through experts nor data. They came from 81 intense youth focus groups held across the length and breadth of Pakistan: from Kalash to Karachi to Khuzdar; from Gwadar to Gujar Khan to Ghizer.
As a thought exercise, based on our survey and other data, we tried to imagine what the youth of Pakistan would look like if we could reduce all of them to a representative sample of 100 young people. Some things were not a surprise. Many were.
The most obvious, but worth mentioning nonetheless, is that of the 100 as many as 55 would live in Punjab, 23 in Sindh, 14 in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and only four in Balochistan. The remaining four would come from Azad Jammu and Kashmir, Gilgit-Baltistan and FATA.
30 of the 100 would not be able to read or write. Only six would have 12 years or more of education and 29 would have none. 94 of the 100 would have no access to a library. 52 would own a mobile phone, but only 15 would have access to the internet.
Of the 100, only one would have a car. 12, a motorcycle. 10, a bicycle. Only 38 out of the 100 youth will say they play sports frequently. Sadder still, only seven out of 100 will have access to sports facilities.
While only 24 will say they trust political leaders, 90 per cent of males and 55pc of women will say they intend to vote in the next elections.
On the other hand, 70 of the 100 young Pakistanis would say they feel safe. 89 would say they feel happy. 67 would say their life is better than their parents’. And 48 would say that Pakistan’s future is bright (as opposed to 36 who believe it would be bleak).
In short, the world of young Pakistanis is as diverse, as differentiated, and as divided as the rest of Pakistan.
However, they also have greater expectations and aspirations which, if nurtured, could yield high dividends. Along with this comes much impatience and restlessness which, if ignored, could result in disaster.
Whether one seeks high payoff or reduced risk, there are no better investments to make in Pakistan today than investments in our youth. Our analysis suggests that three key investments — the 3E’s — will mark the difference between a youth boom or bust: quality education, gainful employment, meaningful engagement.
Provide these to our youth and we will empower them to unleash their potential. Deny these, and what we will get is youth anger and anguish.
In her message to our report, Malala Yousafzai reminds us of the importance of girls education but also of Article 25A of Pakistan’s Constitution which promises education to all children of school-going age. So, we set about calculating how long it would take, if we continue doing things as we are doing now, before this constitutional obligation can be met.
The answer was agonizing. At the current rate of about one per cent enrollment growth per year, it would not be until 2076 that every Pakistani child of school-going age would be in school. Yes, 58 more years!
To meet the goal before 2050, we would need to double the rate of growth in school enrollment. And it would take a near quadrupling of the enrollment growth rate if we are to aspire to put every Pakistani child of school-going age into school by 2030 or before.
The biggest challenge in education, however, is quality. The current situation can best be described as educational apartheid. The few, very few, get world-class education. The many, too many, even if they get a schooling, are denied meaningful education.
This has a direct bearing on the second ‘E’: Employment. We estimate that given the youth bulge we are facing, Pakistan will need to create anywhere from 1 million to 1.5mn new jobs per year for the next two decades (depending on labour force participation goals).
Daunting as this challenge may be, it is, in fact, an achievable goal. The much more important, and difficult, goal is to provide gainful employment.
On the one hand, employers bemoan the lack of skills and qualification in the labour force. On the other, the bulk of jobs being produced are low quality: casual, unreliable, and unsafe jobs without rudimentary benefits or basic dignity for the worker. In particular, the crisis is deepest for women in the workplace. Just like the lack of toilets in schools have become a major reason for girls to drop out, the lack of basic facilities in the workplace become an exclusionary device for the woman worker. Transportation — or lack of it — is an equally cruel barrier for women.
The final ‘E’ is meaningful engagement: the belief amongst the young that they have a voice in the most important decisions that impact their lives. It is clear from our research that the young in Pakistan do not believe that they do. It is even more clear that they are desperate to find ways to make their voices heard. The context, however, does not make things easier.
Along with my team, I visited Peshawar literally days after the horrendous APS terror attack. As we spoke to young people in the terror-stricken city, two things became very obvious. First, this was a generation that had grown up with violence and insecurity. Second, in too many recent terrorist attacks it is the young who do the killing and it is also the young who do the dying. Even as things become better, the scars of this legacy will not heal easy.
Also evident is the fact that the intolerance, doubt and distrust that defines society at large has been passed on to our young, even compounded amongst some segments of our youth. Within this context, the space for meaningful engagement is even more constrained.
On the positive side, however, are examples of entrepreneurial energy — for business as well as social causes — that find their way to sunshine across all geographies and classes. The invention of the designer naan. The introduction of women-focused pink rickshaws. The spontaneous blossoming of Dewar-i-Meharbani across all major cities in Pakistan. App development sprouting everywhere. The avenues for meaningful engagement by the young may be constrained, but the desire to engage is palpable.
The challenges in education, employment and engagement for our youth are, indeed, monumental. But they are not insurmountable. There is no single silver bullet that can magically cure all. But there are a multitude of small steps that can add up to shift the direction of negative trends.
In our report we collect 101 such ideas that come from young people themselves. They reflect a clear sense that our youth have something to say, and we should be listening to them. The single most important thing that policy can deliver for the young, is to open up the space in which the they can lead and chart their own course; to enable and empower them to unleash the potential of a young Pakistan.
Dr. Adil Najam is the founding Dean of the Pardee School of Global Affairs at Boston University and was the former Vice Chancellor of the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) in Pakistan. He is the lead author of the about-to-be-released Pakistan National Human Development Report (NHDR).