As a common exercise in my English 101 class, I frequently have my students use new vocabulary words in their own sentences. It can simultaneously be entertaining and disheartening—the students come from all over the Middle East and North Africa to go to school at this shiny and new university just outside of Amman, and their English levels vary as much as their upbringings. Last week, one of my most earnest students, a 19-year-old Palestinian from near Ramallah, proudly announced the sentence he had written for the word divert: “Unless the Middle East diverts its direction, we will keep straight to our doom.”
Appreciative chuckles and agreeing nods scattered across the room of 40 students—most have high career hopes, and nearly all have the desire to leave Jordan. It is all coming to a head within their short life spans: the refugee crisis, the high cost of living, the low rates of employment, and the domino effect of the region’s instability. Refugees are pouring across the border in astounding numbers, and the resources will not hold up. The Jordanian government removed fuel subsidies in late 2012, and the anger of the people skyrocketed along with the gas prices. But nothing changed. There is a growing sense of discontent among youth that is palpable. 20-somethings parrot the same refrain to slightly different tunes – there is no work here, we must go somewhere else.
In a country where over half of the population is under the age of 25, the implications of this economic fatalism on the future of Jordan are very real. But it is not without precedent: the official unemployment rate in Jordan stands at nearly 13%, and the youth unemployment rate is over twice that amount. If I were in my students’ shoes, I would feel the same way. Yet, this malaise among Ammani youth is simply a microcosm of an epidemic that reaches across the Middle East.
Two months ago, the World Economic Forum for the Middle East and North Africa was held in Amman. John Kerry, Joseph Stiglitz and some of the world’s best and brightest minds camped out at the Dead Sea to discuss the fate of our resilient region. They contended that the youth unemployment problem in the Middle East and North Africa is the worst in the world. News outlets latched on to and widely disseminated the fact that the only way counter this is to create 100 million new jobs by 2020.
100 million new jobs as precarious political situations and sectarian hatred ripple across increasingly porous borders. My students are disillusioned: they have heard all of this before. Talking heads and ineffectual parliaments lament the unemployment numbers, but the reality is that economic and job stability for youth in the Middle East and North Africa has never been quite within reach. What is remarkable and terrifying about the present is that Middle Eastern countries face their largest youth population in modern history. Young people between the ages of 15 and 29 years old make up 30% of the Arab world. There is an unprecedented “youth bulge” that will somehow bear the weight of the region’s economic future when they are currently being given no agency. TIME recently portrayed American millenials as the “me, me, me” generation—Arab millenials could possibly be characterized in the same way, except their cries are being ignored. Who is listening? Where are their testimonies? It is absolutely necessary to invest in Arab youth and to include their voices among those that we hear when discussing the future of the Middle East and North Africa. They must not be excluded and neglected because of antiquated job protection rules and the notion of wasta—that the only way to climb up is to know someone at the top. Education reform and social enterprise are at the heart of this, but also vital is an attitudinal shift in the way the world sees young people in the Middle East. The young Arab man or woman is not a faceless riot instigator or an anonymous victim of a broken system, but rather a valuable member of society and (hopefully) the work force.
The huge number of young people means that the unemployment situation is precarious, but also that there is astounding potential within this stratum of the Arab world. If indeed there was some kind of generational shift and Arab youth found themselves positioned to enter the labor force in dynamic and meaningful ways, the future of the region would right itself. At present, the unease among youth is fairly rampant—but who is to say that hope and ambition cannot be just as contagious? I envision this for my students: the first step is that they are heard, the second step is that they feel empowered, and the final step is that they internalize the notion that they can be active agents in Jordan’s economy.