In order to fully capitalize on the opportunity presented by the youth bulge, there are certain prerequisites that need to be fulfilled. The chief among them is the need for a comprehensive youth empowerment program. It is easier said than done, especially for a country that continues to face resource constraints, and finds itself in dire economic situation owing to Covid-19 related slowdown. It is equally important to point out that the opportunity comes with a challenge, thus putting a heavy responsibility on the decision-makers to fully and thoroughly think through their responses.
As recognized by the UNDP report, the youth bulge is Pakistan’s window of opportunity to embark on a path of sustainable development. The amazing prospect for a fast-paced growth is followed by dire threats of upheavals to be caused by our national failure to leverage the robust – but raw – energies of our youth. Hence, the dynamics unleashed by this important segment of our demography are deep in nature, and far-reaching in impact with a potential to reshape our state and society.
It is, therefore, important, nay essential, that our national conversation focuses on the youth, the varied challenges they face and how these challenges can be converted into opportunities through a meaningful state intervention. The lack of national conversation means that there is not enough national will to prioritize youth-related issues.
There is enough evidence from around the world that suggests the rising level of expectations of the teeming millions in general and that of the youth in particular from the nation-states. These expectations are not just centred on a greater share in the economic cake, commensurate with their burgeoning size but also demand a greater say in deciding the national affairs.
In discussing the characteristics unique to a generation born after 1995, better known in the jargon of Generation Z, it is important to discuss the role of information and communication technology (ICTs) that has shaped many of this generation’s reference points, and the nature of their interactions with the state and society. With access to the world and all that is happening in it just a click away, thanks to the mushrooming growth of ICTs and their penetrating role in life, the contribution of technological factor in shaping the worldview of Generation Z is well-documented.
However, to presume that technology always plays the role of an equaliser is to overlook the digital divide that is a fact of life, distinguishing the urban areas from the backward ones. For the most part, our attention has been directed at the urbanite youth to the neglect of those living in the rural hinterlands. For this segment of the youth, life offers different experiences and insights. Therefore, an assessment of their predicaments, challenges and opportunities is in order here to arrive at a balanced conclusion regarding the potential of Generation Z to effect meaningful changes capable of responding to the demographic challenge.
The lives of the rural youth have been shaped by an array of factors and institutions with a huge bearing on their way of thinking and subsequent actions. Ever since they gained consciousness in 2000 onward, this version of Generation Z has seen the world in perpetual turmoil. The political conflicts, unending wars, suicide bombings, and terrorism have filled their minds with the images that lowered the bar for the use of violence as a means of getting their demands accepted. The blowback effect on the country, which found itself involved in a war on terror as a frontline ally, has deepened the influence of violence.
Secondly, Pakistan witnessed a massive revolution in the field of media about the same time that this generation was in schools. The political analysts, news anchors and the content aired on TV talk shows have helped them form first-hand impressions of the world around them. The debates on a range of issues have served as their primary source of information and opinion-making irrespective of the questions being raised about authenticity of information and data pedalled round the clock by TV channels.
While media’s role in strengthening the culture of free speech and keeping a check on the governments is laudable, the content aired on TV channels leaves a lot to be desired in terms of efficacy, correctness and compliance with the requisite journalistic standards. Operating in the absence of strict code of conduct, Pakistani media has unfortunately promoted bigotry, fake news and partisanship in the present socio-political milieu. No-holds-barred sabre-rattling on TV screens meant solely for ratings has deeply impacted a whole generation of the youth, turning them into warriors who get motivated more by emotion than by logic as they grapple with issues around them.
Thirdly, the kind of education imparted in the educational institutions attended by the youth of semi-urban and rural areas has the ultimate objective of equipping them with degrees than with the intellectual wherewithal to resolve the complex problems of human existence. The problem becomes acutely complex when you add the hundreds of thousands of the youth studying in religious seminaries, completely divorced from the demands of contemporary life and living in an island of their own. The various streams of education that remain in vogue in Pakistan have helped build walls among different sections of society, thereby strengthening the divide on the basis of class and economic grouping.
Another problem attendant with the failure of our educational institutions is that the learning outcomes are not commensurate with the demands of the market and industry. Hence, we are swelling the ranks of the unemployed youth who have degrees but not the requisite skill set to be able to be absorbed by the job market.
Fourthly, another institution that has the potential to help bridge the divide and empower the youth is that of political parties that can address their aspirations through a clear articulation of their problems and suggestion of concrete policies for their resolution. Unfortunately, it has not happened the way it should have. It is indeed perplexing how such a critical segment that holds the key in terms of its sheer numbers and its ability to spearhead the journey of national development could not find the kind of policy focus it so richly deserved. Political parties worldwide are the nurseries for the political training of the youth from whose ranks emerge the generations of leaders that will lead nations in times to come.
Fifthly, the consciousness of our Generation Z has evolved in an environment when the state has been confronted with a huge challenge of non-state actors of various hues and colours that sought to attack the symbols of the state. Though Pakistan’s story of humbling terrorism and the violent non-state actors is indeed inspirational and unheard of, the fact remains that the challenges to the writ of the state have persisted. Couple this with an unequal nature of our society and you have a deadly mix where the radical forces can exploit the situation to target the vulnerable youth. The danger of radicalism, thus, becomes quite real in such a socio-cultural and political milieu.
Responding to the challenge of youth bulge in a holistic and comprehensive manner deserves utmost importance as well as urgency. We can learn a lesson or two from the countries that have successfully turned this bulge into a demographic dividend. Generation Z is robust, energetic and clear-headed but equally restless and excited. It is time we harnessed their potential before their energies are squandered off to our collective loss. I propose a Grand National Dialogue as the way forward to bring all important stakeholders on one table. The agenda must be to work out medium- to long-term policies for the youth empowerment with a strong national consensus supporting them.
The option of a steering committee may be considered to serve as the linchpin of the dialogue vested with the authority to make critical decisions. This body can also learn from the world’s best practices and customize the lessons in our local contexts. China is a pertinent example to study as Beijing turned its population into a demographic dividend. There will still be many missing links that can be bridged but a beginning has to be made. The issue of demography is too important to be ignored anymore.
The writer, a Chevening scholar, studied International Journalism at the University of Sussex. He writes regularly for opinion-pages of The News.
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