THE BLOG

The Iranian Post-Revolutionary Generation Comes of Age

06/24/2015 10:36 am ET | Updated Jun 23, 2016

For several years I have been writing about a dramatic demographic shift that is about to take place in Iran. It is the emergence of the Post-Iranian Revolution Generation. This new generation has arrived and will create great changes in Iran in the near future.

My remarks below are based on a 21 day trip to Tehran, Zanjan, Hamadan, Kermanshah, Khorramabad, Ahwaz, Behbahan, Shiraz, Yazd, Na'in, Isfahan, Abiyaneh village and Kashan completed on June 21, 2015. I interviewed or spoke with nearly 200 people on this trip. I speak fluent Persian, which facilitated conversation. The route took me and my group through Persian, Azerbaijani, Kurd, Lur and Arab populations. I also encountered a large number of Baluchis living in and around Yazd. This is not everywhere in Iran, but it was a large and varied sampling of the population.

The immediate post-revolutionary generation is now between 35 and 45 years of age. They constitute a huge proportion of the population--more than half. They are now solidly into their careers, are married and have children. Many of them have benefited from the fact that Iran was expanding its industrial and commercial base in the years following the Revolution. This was set back by the Iran-Iraq war, but this generation was too young to fight in the war. After the war was over, in the late 80s and early 90s this generation received their college degrees and were badly needed to rebuild the country. Their employment opportunities expanded during this period, and now those who received higher education are middle and upper managers, professionals. The Free University was established during this period expanding higher education opportunities, but this post-Revolutionary generation had an advantage over the younger people who triggered a boom in undergraduate degree holders. In short, the post-Revolutionary degree holders were still educational elites and benefited accordingly.

These post-Revolutionaries (hereafter PRs) are feeling their economic and political strength, and their huge numbers give them enormous influence in social and economic life.

First, the women PRs are all highly educated. Even those who did not go to college are literate and knowledgeable. It is this group of women who have reduced Iran's birth rate to replacement levels (2 per family) as opposed to 1980 when the family size was an average of 6 children. These women are also marrying much later than before the revolution, and some never marry at all, but are happy pursuing careers.

Male PRs are far more likely to respect women's education and career aspirations and to assume more egalitarian family roles. Child care and household work are more equally shared by these men. Traditional male conservatism is far less evident.

Both male and female PRs are openly defiant of government regulations on personal conduct, including dress. This has exploded in the last few years as the PRs advance in their careers and in social prestige. Female dress is now extravagantly fashionable in a way that would have shocked the women of the early 1980s. In the last three years, vibrant colors have appeared that would never have been tolerated before. Even television spokespersons are appearing in red (studiously avoided for adults in the past because of its association with the enemies of Imam Hossein in the Kerbala story) and yellow dress. The hijab head covering has now become a mere accoutrement to female dress for many women, and clothing is far more form-fitting than before. Women color their hair blond and wear extensive makeup. In the early 1980s, conservatives used to slash the faces of women wearing lipstick with razor blades.

Men, who before the Khatami presidency were required to wear long-sleeved shirts buttoned up to the neck now wear brightly colored T-shirts and other sports clothing on the street. Jeans are very tight, low-slung and revealing. In the past white shirts and somber formless suits were the rule. Men have started wearing gold jewelry in direct defiance of Islamic tradition. Some men have started wearing ties again after years of disapproval at this "Western decadence." Extravagant hair styles--even shoulder length are popping up, and facial hair is groomed in a variety of fashionable styles, including clean-shaven.

Let me emphasize that this is not just restricted to Northern Tehran. One sees these changes absolutely everywhere, including the remoter provincial areas.

It may seem superficial to talk about dress and makeup, but these personal decisions are subtle means of social protest against government regulation.

The PRs are traveling everywhere with their children. Pilgrimage and visiting relatives is the traditional reason for travel. No longer. The PR families are engaged in heavy recreational tourism with an eye toward teaching their children to appreciate their heritage. This includes the Zoroastrian, Christian and even Jewish sites, which have some of the heaviest tourist traffic. Single people are also traveling, including single women traveling with friends, both male and female. Although open defiance of public contact between unrelated males and females is more typical of the next generation (16-24 year olds), clearly the PRs are relaxed in mixed company. I was surprised to find whole busloads of touring groups not related to each other in many tourist areas. One of the largest groups was a busload of friends, some married and some unmarried, from Urumieh in Northwest Iran touring Shiraz.

It may seem paradoxical but the PRs are not anti-religious. Many are observant Muslims. The prayer rooms and mosques still have many of them in attendance. But the PRs are relaxed about religious practice. I met a number of avowed atheists. Many people told me that they favored Sufistic practice over orthodox practice. I was in Iran during the first days of Ramazan (Ramadhan) and fasting was quite casually observed. Even in the bazaars one saw people drinking tea during the day, and many restaurants were open. I was not in Iran during the mourning month of Moharram, but talking to people about their Moharram celebrations made me think of Mardi Gras. People emphasized the great preparations they made, the food, the elaborate ta'ziyeh theatrical performances and the processionals rather than the religious theology behind the mourning.

Even the clerics of the PR generation are radically different from the Revolutionary generation. These 30-45 year old theologians are critical of the government, relaxed about sexuality and morality and internationalist in their outlook. Those Americans who think that all Iranian clerics are "mad mullahs" need to meet some of these bright and attractive young religious leaders.

The PRs love Iran, but they are openly critical of the government. They call Iran's leaders "Arabs," They worry about Iran's commitments to external groups in Lebanon, Syria and elsewhere, and openly express that "charity begins at home" citing Islamic rules about required charity which are clear that for a family the family's needs must be met before the charitable tithe is made out of surplus income.

The PRs are universally hopeful about a positive outcome for the Lausanne/Vienna talks. They have very little to say about Iran's nuclear program except that they are proud of the achievements in nuclear engineering, which is a mark of pride for them. They are universally positive about the United States and Americans, and express over and over that they want Iran and America to be friends again. The stereotype of Iranians chanting Death to America is utterly inaccurate, and this is not limited to the PRs. When my traveling companions asked about the sloganeering, the PRs just laughed. "Those are 'sandwich protesters'" one man said. "On some national holidays they round up a lot of people to chant 'Death to America' and then give them a sandwich or a soft drink."

As a side note, these big anti-US rallies seem to have ceased. The big murals that used to depict the United States in vicious graphics have been painted over with decorative motifs. Martyrs from the Iran-Iraq war are features on billboards everywhere, but the anti-American rhetoric appears as a vestige in a few remote places.

One of the fascinations in studying Iran is to note the incredible kindness and hospitality of Iranians (admittedly, some of this is perfunctory, or superficial) contrasted with a strong pessimism and dark thoughts about conspiracies both internal and external. Iranian culture embodies a cultural belief in the contrast between the apparent and the real, and the "real" is often believed to be something very dire and negative. Apparent praise and approval of government officials, for example, masks a belief that they are all corrupt. I asked one gentleman which of the many newspapers available to read was the best and most reliable. "None of them," he said. "they all lie. But the crossword puzzle is fun."

This said, the PRs are the generation most comfortable with their current situation. Younger people are deeply concerned about unemployment and are even more impatient with social restrictions. Older people are struggling with pensions that are nowhere near adequate for their needs, and they worry about the employment prospects for their children and grandchildren. It is the older generation that is most likely to be poor and are most critical of the government, which they feel has not delivered on the promises of the Revolution.

The real question for Iran's future is to discern what the PRs are going to do with their emerging influence. As the older Iranian leaders die or retire these people will be taking over ever more important leadership roles. Women are an especially important part of this movement. These men and women are going to transform Iran in a dramatic fashion.

There is one dark note here. The rising expectations of the PR and younger generations are somewhat similar to pre-Revolutionary conditions. Likewise consciousness of or belief in the existence of corruption is similarly endemic to the pre-Revolution. As the expectations of the pre-Revolutionary Iranian people became frustrated by the Shah, they were susceptible to the ideologies of the Marxists, the secular nationalists and the religionists. As I was often told before the Revolution of 1978-79, "Any donkey would be more acceptable than the Shah." If the rising expectations of the PRs are frustrated by the current Iranian government, it could touch off another revolution. The State is clearly worried about this. The Green Movement of 2009 protesting purported victory of President Ahmadinejad's second term election, it was a shot across the bow for the leadership. Criticism of social conditions is now more widely tolerated, but not criticism of the basic leadership and structure of the state. If the PRs are not allowed to advance in leadership and in meeting their expectations, there could be another explosion.