A Ticking Time Bomb: The Arab Spring And America's Lost Generation

High unemployment pushed young people in the Middle East and North Africa to revolt. Why wouldn’t it happen here?

Is it useful to think of the Occupy movement more as a “left” movement or a “youth” movement? To answer that question, it’s worth looking into data on the young, particularly as it relates to unemployment.

To leave the United States for a minute, one way people are trying to understand the Arab Spring is through the lens of massive youth unemployment and inequality. Given how high unemployment has been in these MENA (Middle-East and North African) countries, what else could we expect besides revolution?

For instance, in early February then-IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn told a conference, “this summer I made a speech in Morocco about the question of youth employment including Egypt, Tunisia, saying it is a kind of time bomb” and “such a high level of unemployment, especially youth unemployment, and such a high level of inequality in the country create a social situation that may end in unrest.” Here is the “youth unemployment” blog tag at the IMF to give you a sense of what people there have been saying about it. In particular, they point out that it should be a major concern for the MENA and African regions.

Interestingly enough, it was even a concern before the mass protests broke out. Regional IMF officials Ratna Sahay and Alan MacArthur gave a presentation on January 23rd, “Challenges for Egypt in the Post Crisis World,” at the Egyptian Center for Economic Studies in Cairo (h/t WSJ). Protests would begin a few days later. Here’s a key slide from that presentation:

Part of you may want to immediately start pointing out differences between this country and those. Maybe you are furious at terrible, unresponsive, corrupt governments ignoring the plight of their populations. Maybe you think that if these countries only had neoliberal, “flexible” wage contracts and a leakier safety net like we have in the United States, then unemployment would be much better.

You may then head over to our monthly unemployment numbers and note that American youth unemployment is in the same ballpark as these MENA countries.

I’ve taken numbers from the IMF presentation slide above and compared them to the United States’ youth unemployment averages from October 2010-October 2011 from the BLS’s CPS data:

I can’t find what constitutes “youth” for “youth unemployment” in the IMF’s definition, and I’m not even sure if it is consistent across the different countries they estimated. As such, I’m including ages 16-19 and ages 16-24, though I believe they are looking at 16-24. For the 16-19 age group, we are at the same level of unemployment as Egypt and well above the region as a whole. At the broader 16-24 range, we are above Syria and Morocco, which both saw large-scale movements in the Arab Spring.

One potential explanation for the high level of youth unemployment in MENA countries is that they have huge demographic issues to deal with — they have a massive wave of people under 35 years of age to assimilate into their economies. What’s our excuse, other than confidence fairy terror spells and a desire to go after public sector workers? And given this, how could we ever say youth unemployment in the United States’ Lesser Depression isn’t a “time bomb”?

I have to admit I’m a bit hardened to the various charts I’m able to put together from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ data, but this graph of the employment-to-population ratio for 16-24-year-olds going back to 1948 floored me:

Remember that the increase from the 1950s onward reflects women entering the labor force. And notice how it doesn’t improve after the early 2000s recession. Every age group has seen a substantial drop in the employment-population ratio, but no other group I’ve seen comes close to this plummet. For the first time in half a century, a majority of young people aren’t working.

Mike Konczal is a Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute.

Cross-Posted From The Roosevelt Institute’s New Deal 2.0 Blog

The Roosevelt Institute is a non-profit organization devoted to carrying forward the legacy and values of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.


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