"I am sorry, I am so very sorry, I did not mean to be disrespectful," the young man says as soon as he has blurted his story out. He fidgets nervously with his little notepad. He is young, but the deep lines that crease his face reveal the hard life he has led. This is his story: "Do you know what it is like to wake up feeling ashamed every morning, feeling deeply ashamed that I cannot help support my aging parents," he says, "that I cannot go and buy a bit of fruit for my little sister since I do not have a single coin in my pocket? I went to school, I did well, I went to university, I did even better but what was it good for? Nothing! Here I am, I cannot afford to get married. I cannot even look my mother in the eyes as I spend the nights in the street drowning my sorrows." The young man lifts his head, his eyes welling up with tears." I have been stripped of my manhood, or maybe I should say, I was never even allowed to become a man." He lowers his voice as it begins to crack up. "I am 29 years old and I literally feel like I am slowly dying. Dying."
The five other young people around the table silently nod, and as we have all been moved by his heartfelt honesty, we decide to take a short break. I go into another room to compose myself and reflect for a couple of minutes. The young man's words came from a place of pain, frustration, and despair. I have met many young people across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region expressing these sentiments, and it takes a toll to see these young, intelligent people with enormous potential simply wither away because they are not given a chance to become productive citizens. I take a deep breath and return to the table, but the young man has already left.
I decide to wrap up the consultation with the remaining participants, and together we discuss the challenging issue of youth unemployment. We say our farewells and as they leave, a quiet girl with beautiful almond-shaped eyes looked at me and says: "Ma'am, even if we acquire the right skills, even if new jobs are created, what does it matter if I do not carry the 'right' family name? My less talented classmate with better connections will end up landing the job anyway."
This episode provides the human story behind the statistics of long-term youth unemployment in the Middle East. As suggested in the forthcoming flagship report on jobs in MENA, youth need to succeed in a "double transition": first, they need to obtain relevant skills and credentials that make them employable, and second, they have to find a job in a notoriously non-meritocratic labor market.
So far, the impediments can be attributed to low-quality education, irrelevant skills, and inequity based on class, privilege and family connections as opposed to ability, talent and achievement. In addition, there is also an issue of expectations mismatch between a graduate's skill and the reality of the labor market.
The recent paper prepared in support of the development of the MENA Social Protection Strategy presents a dilemma many youth face as they queue for public sector jobs while resorting to informal employment to support themselves. Unfortunately, this reality prolongs their exclusion from the formal labor market. It also distorts skills formation, as the young study to acquire specializations that are not in line with private sector demand but serve the coveted public sector instead.
At the same time, labor regulations in the region contribute to the protection of labor market insiders, i.e. those who already hold a good job, such as prime age male workers in formal employment. This protection comes at the expense of new entrants to the labor market, such as women and youth.
Unfortunately, there are no easy or quick solutions. However, our team used face-to-face consultations to take the pulse on the region's views on the issue of youth unemployment. Participants emphasized the need to discuss both practical and cultural constraints to female labor market participation. They also discussed the need to provide the youth with skills (entrepreneurial and other) relevant to the region and the rest of the world.
The following were some views from government, academia, and civil society representatives in Beirut and Tunis.
"Look how the youth used the internet (social media) to make a change, they are so much more creative and connected than the preceding generation. If they can also acquire business skills they can channel this creativity and inter-connectedness into businesses and help the economy boom."
"As soon as the young women get married they have children and give up work for many years to come, probably because they are expected to stay home but even if they want to work, there is no good childcare."
"We have many youth and new jobs are not created. We need to find our countries' comparative advantages and invest in those industries, whether its tourism or outsourced call centers, while providing the youth with skills within the emerging markets."
"The Arab world is facing a very serious problem with the quality of education both at the tertiary level and higher education and... because of this... we have problems with employment and employability."
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