Pakistan’s Youth Bulge: Dividend or Disaster?

Pakistan’s Youth Bulge: Dividend or Disaster?

By Sarmad Ishfaq


Sarmad PhotoA youth bulge is a phenomenon where a country’s young population is relatively high compared to the rest of the population age groups.

According to the World Bank, it normally takes place when countries reduce their infant mortality and mothers maintain a high fertility rate. Like many before it, Pakistan is at a crossroads with respect to its youth bulge where one road leads to a prosperous future and the other to social, economic and political disaster. According to research done by UNICEF, Pakistan ranks among the top countries with a massive youth bulge –35% of the population is 15 and under. According to Pakistan’s Planning Commission, 48% of population is in the 15-39 age brackets. This can become a national dividend or a potential disaster depending on how the government and its institutions respond to it. If proper educational institutions and sufficient employment opportunities are present, the youth bulge will become a productive resource in the economy and improve the social stability of the country. But on the other hand if unemployment or specifically youth unemployment is high, this can lead to social and political unrest, as well as being a huge burden on the country’s economy. It is to be noted that education alone cannot achieve success as long as there are a lack of jobs available; if an educated society exists without adequate employment opportunities, what good is it?

Isabel Ortiz writes in her paper titled ‘Social Policy’ that “education does not result in employment; education raises productivity, but employment is mostly a result of adequate macroeconomic policies”. Meaning today we might be more educated than our parents but we are facing a more sever unemployment scenario.

Pakistan’s current unemployment rate is around 5.2% according to the International Labor Organization (ILO). The ILO also predicts that it will slightly increase over the coming years due to the political situation of the country. The youth unemployment has risen from 5.1 in 1990 to 7.7 in 2008, unfortunately current data (2010 onwards) was not available but it can assessed how demoralizing the trend is. Studying the statistical data also shows that youth unemployment is almost always higher than adult unemployment.

One of the major reasons for such frightening figures is due to our traditional reliance upon a large family structure (this is still true in the rural areas), and also how our religious scholars maligned the family planning programs/movement (especially in the 90s) declaring it as un-Islamic making people fearful to try such “western ideas”. This has resulted in a large population growth since independence; the more the people the more you require jobs to sustain them and the economy. Although it must be remarked that in recent years the fertility rate has declined –especially in urban areas; as of 2014 the current rate is 2.86 births per woman. Another reason is the advances in medical science which has led to fewer infant deaths and has led to increases in the population; in 1960 the mortality rate (under 5) was 237 which improved to 72 in 2011.

There are numerous cases where countries with youth bulges have successfully transitioned into an era of prosperity using their young people as an asset. This includes countries like Malaysia, South Korea, and China; all three of which are successful economic nations today but faced a great set of issues in the past .China, in 1970, had a huge youth population and to turn this situation into a positive, China introduced major economic reforms which resulted in great employment chances for the people. They prioritized industrialization and repositioned the young from agrarian to industrial work. During this time, China understood that education is essential but also knew that jobs need to be generated simultaneously; to do this they started the National College Entrance Examination which was a test for people to get desirable jobs. These exams were also conducted for finding jobs in factories and even factory managers had to take the exam to keep their jobs. In the 1980s, China introduced some new policies with the aim of creating jobs for young people; they also expanded their services sector to achieve the same result.

South Korea is another example of a troubled state which turned things around for itself. The South Koreans faced major problems after the Korean War; they were mainly an agrarian society and had a high youth bulge. Shockingly, the fertility rate of South Korea in the 1950s was greater than 6 children per woman. They addressed these problems with population control schemes and family planning programs where the basic aim was to have a small and healthy family rather than the opposite. In addition to reducing and stabilizing their population, they created jobs for the youth. This, like China, was done by their move towards an industrial centric economy which was of significant importance to them economically. According to the World Bank, for the past few years South Korea’s youth unemployment has been in single digits.

Now let’s look at the other end of the spectrum, countries which have not cashed in on their high youth bulge. These usually include developing countries such as those in the African continent like Uganda where 76% of the population is below 30. According to research done by the African Development Bank, Uganda has a youth unemployment of above 80% which is considered to be the greatest in Africa. Different factors have led to this like the lack of proper educational facilities, which is a problem Pakistan also shares. Other than this, Uganda has a high population growth rate which needs to be placed in check or otherwise catastrophe can ensue.

Back to our case with Pakistan; what will it be for us? Will we be able to turn things around and make the best use of our youth bulge or not? Unfortunately, right now if you ask someone this question he or she will have a pessimistic response. They will criticize the government of today and the past for not creating institutions, for supporting bipartisanship, for politicizing our bureaucracy, for mass corruption. As of 2013 we spend only 2.5% of the GDP on education; that is unbelievably low and shows how much we value our children’s futures. Private schools might be performing better, but the masses who cannot afford such quality of education have to send their children to government run schools or madrassas where the standard is just not the same. But again it must be stressed that education alone cannot solve the unemployment crisis, what is needed is economic growth and hence creation of jobs. If there is a lack of jobs for the youth, there is a high probability of anti-social behavior like drugs, selling of arms, robbery and other illegal activities taking place in society. This also places a burden on law enforcement agencies and creates more problems such as lack of tourism. This anti-social behavior is on the rise and is only the tip of the iceberg if we continue to fail prioritizing the youth. According to the National Crime Data the average crime rate has increased by 17.58% since 2008. The ‘Talibanization’ process has also consumed many young ones. Studies have shown that a major motivating factor for young people to join radical groups is lack of income/jobs ; the recruiters and handlers of these radical groups use this fully to their advantage and turn the young into their brand of ‘jihadis’.

The youth demographic is one of the most important to the economy; they are energetic, excited, innovative, and hardworking and want to exceed expectations. Not only do they play an integral role in the economy but they have also played a pivotal part in politics; take the example of South Africa where during the anti-apartheid movement the youth were instrumental in supporting Nelson Mandela and his campaign to end white-black segregation. Another recent example is Pakistan where for the first time such a huge amount of young people went out to ‘jalsas’, protests , ‘dharnas’ , and rallies to defend their political rights and also went in huge numbers to the polling stations during the elections .

To take advantage of these attributes of the youth, we must create jobs; this can be done through foreign investment: basically getting multinationals to set up in areas of the country; tax incentives should be given to them and specialized economic zones should be set up so these companies can establish themselves and employ the youth. We have already seen that our young excel in IT, medicine (doctors), engineers and even in the telecom sector so much so that the Western world gladly accepts these young geniuses with open arms. We need to retain these people so we can reap from them the benefits of their labor. Also, a more open and transparent examination/recruitment system in the government is required; this will promote meritocracy and our youth will not be ashamed to work in the public sector. It is depressing how many potential young leaders, bureaucrats and technocrats opt for the private sector or go abroad because state run institutions are plagued with corruption and nepotism.

The rural area youth should not be forgotten as well; recently the Pakistan Army has started a program to recruit more soldiers from Baluchistan, FATA and Sindh. This is a smart step as the people and youth of FATA and Baluchistan feel disillusioned by the rest of the country owing to the lack of jobs, facilities, infrastructure and security of their areas. It is obvious that these areas require not only greater quality and quantity of schooling but also adequate job opportunities.  Small scale industries can be promoted and incentivized to set up in rural homes. The goods made in these industries such as handicrafts, footwear, carpets, musical instruments etcetera are very touristy, and will keep the local youth and others engaged. This is also a clever alternative to farming for the local females. They can become an important part of the economy as there are currently about 52 million females under the age of 24 according to World fact book. As education has gotten better in cities, the urban females feel more empowered –compared to rural women- and are becoming heavily employed in the private and public sectors.

It is truly a shame how untapped our youth’s talents are. In my travels around KPK, Gilgit Baltistan, AJK, I have seen the youth of these areas engage in football, cricket, polo, volleyball, marching bands, local dance, pottery, music and handicrafts. The provincial governments should take advantage of this and set up yearly festivals, like the Swat Festival, where they can involve everyone especially young people. Festivals like these attract people from all over and promote the local economy. Other than schools, infrastructure such as libraries, cricket/football grounds, community centers are a must to expand the youths potential and for them to find their calling. It is important for them to have options in what they do and where they are employed as well. They should not be restricted to farming or manual labor as their futures should be defined by them and this can only happen if we allot them proper opportunities. The youth’s local talents should also be made available to the urban centers of Pakistan by having cultural events in areas like Lahore, Karachi, and Peshawar and so on. Similarly sports camps can also be set up in these hard to reach areas to engage the youth and find potential superstars. There are many alternatives and solutions; we mainly need proper funding and implementation.

There is a serious need for government policies to be changed and updated that involve the youth demographic. Major reforms and legislation like that in China and South Korea are needed but with proper implementation (which we lack). Programs like Prime Ministers Youth Program should play a greater role on the futures of the youth and other programs like it should be started by the federal and provincial governments; vocational and technical training institutions are also required to keep Pakistanis up to date with the world. E-commerce , E-business, freelancing , and blogging are great ways of self-employment  and the youth that realize this are making good money sitting at home. These activities might seem unorthodox in our society but it is this kind of mental rigidness that makes us slow in capitalizing on global trends.

If we waste time by not creating the necessary opportunities for our youth, it will turn disastrous and rather than trying to rectify the situation then we should focus on preventing such a situation to arise in the first place. If the correct public policies are formulated and more importantly implemented we can see success on the horizon where our youth becomes a dividend which pays Pakistan for years to come.


The views and opinions expressed in this article/Opinion/Comment are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Dispatch News Desk. Assumptions made within the analysis are not reflective of the position of Dispatch News Desk.