BEIRUT: Not all population groups are created equal, economists often remind policymakers, especially during times of economic down-turn.
In Lebanon, as in most parts of the world, the youth, with numerous barries to economic resources, bear the brunt of the country’s economic woes. Unemployment rates among people below the age of 25 is four times higher than those of their adult counterparts, some surveys show.
The Daily Star spoke to a number of economists in order to understand the scale of economic desperation in a group that many view as having been sidelined by the political debate.
“The problem is that policymakers in this region view the youth as the future and not as part of their present,” said Lubna Izzidine, a social development consultant who has worked on youth issues in the region for more than 16 years.
Youth unemployment rates in the Arab region are the highest in the world, according to a variety of studies by international groups. A Deloitte Middle East study released late last year estimates that one in four Arab youth are unemployed.
“[High youth unemployment rates] have to do with a certain population dynamic – a high fertility rate that’s often known as ‘the youth bulge,’” said senior regional adviser at the International Labor Organization (ILO), Zafiris Tzannatos. Many analysts view the so-called ‘youth bulge’ as a cause for economic and political volatility.
“The youth bulge, I believe, is not a problem but a blessing. The youth are more productive than the old, more energetic, and also they are more educated … so I view them not as a problem but as a solution,” Tzannatos says.
The reason for sky-high unemployment rates among the youth, Tzannatos believes, is that the size of the region’s economy has not grown at a fast enough rate to absorb a ballooning population.
There are two reasons the youth have garnered the attention of economists, according to Tzannatos. The first is that they are a large untapped resource in the region. The second is that the condition of a country’s youth tends to carry with it large social and political implications.
“The Tunisian youth, for example, are very educated. It is this education that sparked what you see there today,” Tzannatos said. He was referring to youth-led economic riots in Tunisia that overthrew that country’s dictatorship this month, and helped inspire the current uprising in Egypt.
While it is difficult to get an accurate picture of youth conditions in Lebanon, as official demographic statistics do not exist, there are some private and non-profit groups that have taken it upon themselves to compile data and map out economic trends.
Madma, or the Center for Development Studies and Projects, is one such group. “At the very least, there needs to be an unemployment survey done every three months. Here in Lebanon we have to wait four years … we can’t rely on major surveys so we use small samples,” said its chair Riad Tabbarah.
Unemployment in Lebanon ranges between 12 and 14 percent, Tabbarah said. Adult unemployment stands at around 4 percent, and this goes up to 20 percent among people below the age of 25.
“Since it’s usually [the youth’s] first entrance into the labor market, barriers to labor market entry are always a lot higher for them than for the rest of the population … Who are the first to get hurt during any recession? The youth. They are the first to get laid off,” said Tabbarah.
Madma finds that on average, it takes a fresh graduate a year to find a job. In the throes of a job search, the vast majority of graduates also apply to various embassies in the hopes of emigrating. “Migration is the valve that has been put on unemployment. If it were not for migration we would have much more unemployment,” said Tabbarah.
Tabbarah recalls looking over employment samples one year and feeling shocked that unemployment rates had spiked to 26 percent. He later realized that those rates had occurred at the wake of the September 11 attacks in 2001, when Arab migration to the West was at an all-time low.
Several international organizations and some non-profit groups based in Beirut have tried to tackle the youth unemployment issue through grassroots work with local communities, including some Palestinian refugee camps. The ILO, for example, launched an initiative that tries to teach young people about entrepreneurship
There are a number of ways states try to support youth employment. These include providing micro-loans to aspiring entrepreneurs, and encouraging youth hires by subsidizing wages.
But to some economists, including Tzannatos, initiatives such as this are more of a Band-Aid than a remedy. “The bulk of unemployment is determined by macroeconomic policy … the impact of youth employment programs have been very limited [in Lebanon] because we’re dealing with a sea, a very porous labor market,” said Tzannatos. Dealing with youth unemployment must begin with holistic reform of the Lebanese economy, Tzannatos believes.