Youth, Joblessness and Revolution in Egypt–and America?

We've got a generation of marginalized and increasingly frustrated youth here, too.

By Kai Wright Feb 02, 2011

As popular uprisings continue to swell throughout the Middle East, the question of the hour is of course, Why? What set this off? There’s no singular answer. Surely the demands are for more open government and less corruption, but those cannot be separated from the enormous economic frustration that a generation of young people have faced in places like Tunisia and Egypt. Ellen Knickmeyer gracefully untangles these overlapping issues in a Jan. 27 dispatch for Foreign Policy. She describes a typical morning’s scene in a Tunisian town where the wave of uprisings began:

Out marches an army: broad-shouldered men in their 20s and early 30s in hooded sweatshirts with Sacramento Kings’ emblems, or other allusions to Western culture. Young women, crisply dressed in fashionable calf-high boots, clinging long sweaters, and humongous bug-eyed sunglasses. The crowd, growing in number as it streams into Sidi Bouzid’s main streets, strides purposefully out of narrow neighborhood gravel lanes smelling of dried sewage.

Those still in school proceed to the classroom, while those without jobs make their way to Sidi Bouzid’s coffee shops. But where they — the Arab world’s youth army — are headed right now is, effectively, nowhere. North Africa and the Middle East now have the highest percentage of young people in the world. Sixty percent of the regions’ people are under 30, twice the rate of North America, found a study from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. And with the unemployment rate at 10 percent or more, North Africa and the Middle East also have the highest regional rates of joblessness in the world. For the region’s young people, it’s four times that.

In Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere, these young, educated men instinctively tie their unemployment to their rulers’ corruption. There, like here, longterm joblessness means more than being broke. Their lives are literally stuck in pause–they must remain living in parents’ homes, delay marriages and starting families, live as grown, dependent children. There, like here, that sort of stasis can only last so long before it lurches into unrest.

Colorlines’ Michelle Chen writes that the uprisings have forced Americans to see the "Arab street" through new eyes–no longer as something scary and threatening, but as people ready to fight for the freedoms we celebrate for ourselves. But the Arab street’s movement should also make Americans think about its own growing, stuck and increasingly frustrated young population.

If demographics matter, America’s future will be defined by the fates of Latino and African American young people. Young Latinos are the fastest growing population in the fastest growing states, while young black folks are increasingly crucial to electoral calculations, if nothing else. Yet, our political leaders continue to accept an economy that structurally excludes these young people.

Last July, unemployment was 33 percent among blacks under 24 years old and 22 percent among both Latinos and Asian Americans. Meanwhile, states across the country are closing off public higher education to undocumented immigrants, many of whom have spent their entire lives here. Black youth who graduate college are far more likely to do so with crippling amounts of debt–particularly as for-profit universities continue to pull them and churn them out with piles of debt and no jobs. Unemployment among black college graduates under 25 years old is more than 15 percent, twice that of their white peers.

What’s all of this going to mean for the cities and states these young people call home–places like Michigan and Nevada and California, where neighborhoods are still mired in a foreclosure crisis and jobless recovery? Mass youth uprisings aren’t likely–though they surely wouldn’t be unprecedented in American history–but huge political shifts may well be coming. And last fall offered a glimpse of what those shifts may look like.

For Latinos, the DREAM Act movement may well have marked the start of a more aggressive, less patient relationship with Democrats and Republicans alike. As Julianne Hing reported, the young DREAMers refused to defer to the strategies of either Democratic lawmakers or more established advocates and, instead, took to the streets. Watch this spring for what are likely to be the largest and most provocative May Day rallies since 2006. As the immigration battle intensifies from all sides–including increasing vitriol from conservatives–the next two years could prove explosive.

For black youth, the November elections suggested a decidedly different but equally momentous direction: They may simply disengage from a democratic process that has thus far proved to have little relevance in their lives. Young African Americans dominated the 2008 elections, not just as voters but as organizers for President Obama’s campaign. The Democrats’ selection of North Carolina–a beacon of the "new South" shaped by African American political clout–for their 2012 convention suggests they’re again counting young black folks as key coalition members. But as Jamilah King reported from Wisconsin last fall, the energy of 2008 has altogether evaporated among young people. A presidential eleciton is nothing like a midterm one, but the lackluster support Democrats found in places like Milwaukee is still ominous.

None of this, of course, equates to the popular deposing of one of the 20th Century’s most significant autocrats. Still, while Americans look abroad with awe at the backlash years of marginalization can spawn, we should be mindful of the frustrations mounting in our own economic margins.