With the rapid increase in total populations since the 1950s, the MENA region has experienced an exceptional “youth bulge”. As a result of declining fertility, the youth bulge peaked in North Africa in the 1970s and in the Middle East in the 1990s, still the relative size of youth in the overall population remains high for the foreseeable future. The Arab Human Development Report of 2016 was specifically devoted to the role of youth in current Arab societies. It concluded that the current Arab youth population is “the largest, the most well educated and the most highly urbanised in the history of the Arab region”. In 2015, almost half of the total population were under the age of twenty-four, and more than 60 percent under thirty years old. Despite this trend, large youth populations present particular challenges in developing countries. Correlations between youth unemployment rates, conflict and civil unrest have been drawn, particularly in developing countries where the capacity to generate educational and employment opportunities and avenues for political participation are limited. Education rates improve the potential for inclusion in “legitimate” labour market activity, whilst “incapacitating” youth from engaging in unlawful activity.
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However, of those under thirty involved in the Arab uprisings that swept across the region in 2011, better educated youth were more likely to participate in protests than the unemployed, as feelings of relative deprivation were particularly prevalent in this demographic subset (Paasonen and Urdal 2016). Youth unemployment, youth bulges and education were identified as critical contributing factors leading to the Arab uprisings.
Conflict-stricken countries in the region, such as Yemen, Syria and Iraq, are expected to continue to hold large youth populations. Iran, Turkey, Tunisia, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Egypt will instead see their youth as a share of total populations decline at a faster rate, not least owing to faster-ageing populations. Poorly functioning labour markets and the absence of lawful economic opportunities are likely to make illicit, informal economic activities more attractive. While youth unemployment rates are universally higher than the average unemployment rates of many world regions, the MENA region has significantly higher and indeed widening levels of youth unemployment rates. Similarly, whereas education is seen to contribute positively to the likelihood of employment the world over, the MENA region is distinguished in that those who have obtained higher levels of education face similar levels of unemployment as less-educated people.
Effectively mobilizing the increased size of this rapidly expanding labour force is a critical component in determining the broader social implications of population growth across the region, and capturing the potentia raphic dividend.2 Issues of youth unemployment may also more significantly affect countries already afflicted by social conflicts. The character of youth transitions from education to employment, from dependants to heads of households, will be determined by government capacities to provide relevant, quality education and vocational training, health and reproductive health services, and social protection products such as unemployment insurance schemes and income support. And as youth proportions begin to decline across the region, the successful engagement of the youth population in gainful employment will become increasingly important in preparation for demographic ageing.