The precarity of youth: Entrepreneurship is not the solution

“Today’s youth have been cast in a condition of liminal drift, with no way of knowing whether it is transitory or permanent.” — Zygmunt Bauman, Wasted Lives: Modernity and its Outcomes (2004).


In 2011, the year people across the Arab world poured into the streets demanding bread, dignity and social justice, The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class, by labor economist Guy Standing, hit the stands. Though Standing’s work wasn’t informed by events in the region, his book on labor and life amid anxiety in the 21st century speaks more pointedly to the realities of many young people in the Middle East and North Africa than the much-anticipated 2016 Arab Human Development Report.

The term “precariat” is an aggregate of precarity and the proletariat, used to describe a group of people in society that experience what Standing refers to as the “four A’s” — anxiety, anomie, alienation and anger. Although a reality for men and women of all ages, Standing highlights the implications of this condition on young people in particular.

The UN’s 2016 Arab Human Development Report (AHDR), released six years after the start of the Arab uprisings, is the first to be devoted to youth (15-29 year-olds) since it began in 2002. It places a familiar focus on youth unemployment, radicalization and participation. The report repeatedly references the UN’s 2015 Global Forum on Youth Peace and Security in Jordan, which led to the UN Security Council unanimously adopting Resolution 2250, “recognizing the threat to stability and development posed by the rise of radicalization among young people,” and calling for greater youth representation.

The AHDR goes a long way in acknowledging the plight of refugees, especially women and children, in highlighting forms of gender inequality and in recognizing the role of young people in the 2010/2011 Arab uprisings. It fails however to call into question or even reflect on the neoliberal development project that has contributed to suffering, instability and heightened inequality in the region for decades.

The report draws on a market-based language of youth empowerment and life choices that dates back to the 1990s, and essentially extracts notions of “power” from the concept of “empowerment.” The term is imbued with self-reliance and the assumption that young people can take charge of their own lives and become effective agents of change, irrespective of structural impediments.

The report draws on a market-based language of youth empowerment and life choices that dates back to the 1990s 

The authors of the report downplay the potential collective power in “youth” by employing the terms “youth” and “young people” interchangeably. They do not make a distinction between a “young person” — an individual of a particular age with no specific relation to history, and “youth” — which signifies a social collectivity similar to social class or ethnicity, and which occupies a distinct place in power structures and historical processes. The message to young people is that they should pull themselves together, become more self-reliant and take charge of their lives. This distorted framing of empowerment advances a development model in which young people are encouraged to break their collective bonds as “youth” in exchange for facing the future as competing individuals.

The report supports educational and economic policies that contribute to so-called market driven development. Its focus is on entrepreneurship, employment opportunities and education in a “peaceful and secure” context. The policy recommendations, however, do not correspond to social realities. Let us take education as an example:

“Overcoming education system failure must be a priority for policymakers and educators, who should strive to achieve a good fit between the output of educational institutions and the demands of the labor market. This would involve a survey of the distribution of enrolments across subjects, skills and disciplines, upgrades in technical education and a review of curricula to promote problem-solving skills, entrepreneurial and management capacity and the value of self-employment.” (p. 184)

What are the demands of the labor market to which schools and universities must answer? Currently the market favors flexible, short-term and cheap labor. In addition, human labor is being rapidly transformed by technology. What we know for certain is that the market needs young, energetic people who are willing to intern, volunteer, work long hours, work remotely, continuously retrain and not make demands for benefits or job security.

Schools and universities can undeniably play a role in training a workforce in our rapidly changing times, but the role of education should not be merely to churn out workers, but to also cultivate “good societies.” What kind of education is needed to build a society in which its members can expect dignity and justice?

In the hands of technocrats and development economists, education has been systematically stripped of its social and cultural potential. The proponents of market-oriented education policies display a callous disregard for the ways in which schools and universities might strengthen social solidarity or be places for developing bonds across lines of difference; spaces where people might think and work together to find creative solutions to the challenges of contemporary life. Instead, the mainstream policy community, as it focuses obsessively on outputs, testing and short-term rewards, has delivered us their big idea — youth entrepreneurship.

It is not clear what percentage of the one hundred million 15-29 year olds in the Arab world — a third of the population — are supposed to become self-employed entrepreneurs. Such a push is reminiscent of the late 1980s, when UN agencies, global finance institutions and non-governmental organizations joined forces on a massive scale to promote microfinance to alleviate poverty. After more than three decades of experimentation and data collection, the evidence overwhelmingly points to that fact that microfinance does not cure poverty and has been “a death trap” and “disaster for many. Small-scale, temporary income generation cannot be a substitute for stable work and social protection.

Likewise, evidence is mounting that indicates youth entrepreneurship, while it clearly benefits a few in the short term, is more likely to lead the young deeper into debt. We know from the student debt crisis in the United States and Europe that debt results in insecurity, feelings of hopelessness and precarity.

Evidence is mounting that youth entrepreneurship is more likely to lead the young deeper into debt

The pages of the report are peppered with examples of success stories, the dream being that any Arab entrepreneur could be the next Steve Jobs. While youthful drive and ambition are positive qualities, it is unfair and disingenuous to propagate the myth that anyone with an idea, grit and determination can be an entrepreneur.

Economist Mariana Mazzucato has written extensively on how companies in the “new economy,” such as Apple, Google and others, “that like to portray themselves as the heart of US entrepreneurship, have very successfully surfed the wave of US government-funded investments.” The internet, GPS, touchscreen display and Siri are among the “startups” that benefitted from steep US government funding. If Arab governments and businesses are serious about youth entrepreneurship, they should provide resources and fund foundations to guide and support young talent, not lead them down a road of debilitating debt.

If we listen to, respect and take seriously the voices of youth that rang out six years ago during the Arab uprisings, and that continue today, we will understand that these ideas for youth development, steeped in a paradigm of finance capitalism, are not working. Business cannot continue as usual.

It is time to genuinely join forces to imagine and enact policies and programs that support youth in their collective struggles. Social policies should help young people reach a road to opportunity, security and dignity, not push them further along a perilous path of precarity.

Linda Herrera 

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