The Middle East Millennials’ Dilemma

11 April

A symmetrical, yet unpleasant statistic about the youth in the Middle East reads as follows: 30% of the population is under 30 years of age (commonly referred to as millennials) and 30% of the female amongst them are unemployed. The men are in somewhat better situation with 21% being unemployed; still a large number, by any standards. Figures quoted from the most recent available study by the United Nations.

This does not read well at all. In the West, employers have been going through major cultural change in order to attract and accommodate the Millennials (by changing working hours, introducing gig-economy, actively adopting value-based business practices and trying to close the gender gap pay. However, similar examples in the Middle East are barely on any employer’s agenda. So, why considering the sluggish economic growth in the region, do governments and employers not take advantage of this highly educated, principled and hard-working group, leaving them on the side of the track while the slow economic train chugs along at a snail pace?

To be honest, nobody knows for sure why. However, we can hazard a guess or two. Here is my take on it, and you may disagree or agree with me, it is my personal opinion based on observations over the last 10 years I spent in close proximity to a number of businesses in the region.

To begin with, the alpha male syndrome still prevails. Just as in politics, people in commerce cling on to their jobs and positions of authority for far too long. So, the average employee age in a typical company tends to be a number of years higher than its counterpart in the West. This clogging of the system at the top and middle ranks tends to stop the inflow at the bottom of the hierarchy.

Another factor is the mismatch between supply and demand. Since higher education is largely private, funded by the youth families, the parents in general and the father in particular tend to have the final say as to what the young person can and cannot study at university. Traditionally, doctors, dentists, pharmacists, civil engineers and architects are considered serious subjects to invest in. Everything else is seen as a poor second best. But the market can only absorb so many of these disciplines and the demand for software engineers, accountants, HR specialists, actuaries, underwriters, is left unserved. So, graduates find themselves with three uncomfortable choices: a) stay at home until a break comes from somewhere; b) retrain in a discipline that is in demand at additional cost and time; or c) leave home and work abroad somewhere. Nowadays, a humble Bachelor of Science or Arts is no longer sufficient so, most graduates carry on studying for a Masters’ degree or even a PhD in order to improve their chances of getting on the first step of the career ladder.
A third reason is the most complex and obscure of them all. Most businesses in the Middle East are family owned and run. Therefore, the best and most attractive jobs go to family and friends because nepotism is accepted and even respected in this region. So, far from meritocracy, what you have is plutocracy and tribalism ruling the employment market. Sure, if you want any old job with no or limited future prospects, you can have it however, having spent years and substantial amounts of your parent’s money on your education, you feel entitled to a job with good prospects.

An insidious feature to add to the mix is the almost disregard for the 50% of the youth, mainly women who are still expected to fulfil the traditional role of wife / mother and education and working career is a temporary holding position until Mr. Right turns up to claim his future wife and mother of his children and he expects her to give up work as soon as she gets pregnant. This waste of intelligent human resource is extremely damaging to the economy and society in general.

So, what can be done about this to make the Middle East a modern and more vibrant economy that utilises the human capital that’s literally waiting to be snapped up? The simple answer is to reverse the above conditions but, that would be a glib answer. More specifically, I believe there are practical steps that can be taken to gradually improve the situation. I say ‘gradually’ because I do not believe the fix will be quick or easy simply because the reasons are mainly cultural ones and we all know how difficult it is to alter a society’s culture. Here is a three-step solution:

1. Enforce retirement age to be around 65 years of age. Discourage nepotism and introduce monitoring processes to ensure vacancies are filled on merit rather than family name or personal contacts. Government to carry out external audit of employment and placement of ill-qualified people in senior positions to curtail favouritism and nepotism.

2. Encourage employers to work closely with universities to try and establish education programmes more closely aligned with market needs rather than familial pressure to follow in specific career paths. Give tax breaks to employers willing to sponsor university degrees more akin to their recruitment needs.

3. Make the working environment more millennial-friendly. Move away from closed offices and in to open plan. Adopt principled value systems that speak to the young. Embrace social media as a means to conducting business. Sponsor and encourage employment and retention of female staff by offering more flexible working hours, introduce in-company crèches to tempt new mothers to return to work after the birth of their children. Encourage working from home on temporary or long-term basis especially in technology-based professions.

Clearly, such measures cannot be orchestrated and funded by governments alone. This needs to happen in partnership with employers who need to see the value of this cultural change. In other words, employers and governments need to change their attitude about the young and try and engage in conducting business according to the 21st Century model rather than rely on previous century’s standards.

Mufid Sukkar