x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Energy of youth can be boon, or burden

Given the power of the youth demographic, in numbers and in influence, the role of the young in keeping up the momentum for change is crucial.

A year ago, Arab youth felt that securing political reform and establishing democracy was their top priority.

But today, with disillusionment setting in and economic reality knocking on their front door, their top concerns are fair wages and home ownership, according to findings of the annual Arab Youth Survey, made public this month.

With the heady days of revolution, political optimism and youth power fading, and facing economic woe little different than before the fall of Hosni Mubarak, Egyptians took to the polls this week.

The huge youth demographic is sure to play a significant role. Two-thirds of Egyptians are under 30, and so have known nothing but Mr Mubarak's rule. And about a quarter of Egypt's people are in the 18-29 age bracket.

But in last year's constitutional referendum only 18 million people - just 41 per cent of those eligible - actually voted, perhaps a sign that disillusionment is already eclipsing fervour. In the winter parliamentary elections, the overall turnout was just 54 per cent.

This waning idealism is not isolated to young Arabs. In the US, first-time voters came down strongly for Barack Obama in 2008, bolstering his campaign. In the UK, young people warmed to the Liberal Democrats, who espoused policies such as university enrolment without tuition fees.

In both of those countries, too, young voters are now becoming increasingly apathetic, disillusioned by broken promises, scandal and a sense that those in power are all the same.

Hard times can be hardest on young people, many of whom find themselves with no money, jobs, or prospects. Fulfilling the basic needs of real life becomes a priority; idealism fades. To paraphrase the American psychologist Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs: food, shelter and family come before political idealism.

The "youth bulge" of the Arab world, and of emerging nations such as Pakistan, is a double-edged sword economically. An increasing labour pool offers such countries the opportunity to improve their economic status, particularly at a time when western countries face ageing populations and economic downturn.

It is no coincidence that some of the most successful emerging economies, in Brazil and India, for example, have youthful populations. The challenge is to ensure that jobs are available for this increasingly sophisticated and educated labour force.

The youth bulge is also a double- edged sword politically. The politicisation of all those young people can force leaders to create change, but youth frustration at the inability to improve the reality of their lives can turn to apathy.

It is equally disheartening to see youth apathy in countries such as the UK and US. Young people there already have the opportunity to participate in politics but feel betrayed by the system and feel that their participation is futile.

Given the power of the youth demographic, in numbers and in influence, the role of the young in keeping up the momentum for change is crucial.

Let's hope that apathy is eschewed, and that idealism can flourish despite the painful economic realities.

Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and writes a blog at www.spirit21.co.uk