Opinion and Editorial

Pakistan’s youth bulge

Dr Maleeha Lodhi (fine print)
Filed on October 24, 2012

FROM THE world’s sixth most populous nation, Pakistan is poised to soon become the fifth. This has far-reaching economic and political consequences. Yet this pivotal issue rarely figures in the government’s policy priorities, or for that matter in political or media debate in the country.

Unless this issue is seriously addressed, the intersection between demographic change, economic stagnation and persisting education and gender gaps will confront Pakistan with the specter of chronic instability even social breakdown in the decades ahead. The country has failed to even hold a census since 1998. The UN’s 2010 projections however show that Pakistan’s population will be over 205 million in 2020 and rise to 240 million in 2030.

Not only is Pakistan’s population still growing faster than other developing nations, its demographic profile is also changing. The working age population is expected to double in the next twenty years. To absorb the youth bulge, an estimated 36 million jobs will need to be created in the next ten years alone.

This is a huge challenge. It can hardly be met when 25 million children of school-going age do not have access to education. This means millions of young people — in a population in which 66 per cent are below the age of 30 — will be entering the labour market with an inherent disadvantage. This presents a grim outlook for the future.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Give these young people an education and find them jobs and the demographic dynamics can set Pakistan on a path of economic progress. This is the main message of a new book — Population Dynamics in Muslim Countries. This brings together distinguished academics to assess unfolding demographics in the Islamic world, drawing on diverse experiences of Muslim nations and offering instructive comparisons. The book shows that fertility decline can be quite rapid in Muslim countries with the pace determined by socio-economic development and official family planning policies. Muslim countries are in varying stages of demographic transition, when birth and death rates are falling and the bulk of the population moving from being economically dependent to becoming potential earners. But there is nothing inevitable that this will produce a demographic dividend.

The chapter that examines the connection between demographic factors and political change in the Middle East offers important insights. It identifies several structural similarities that underpinned the Arab Spring and which will continue to shape its future course. He lists them as: “demographic dynamics, a challenging situation in the labour markets, social structures that particularly affect women, and the uncertain position of religious leaders”. All these will matter to the final outcome.

In the next 20 years Pakistan will experience its largest working-age population bulge. As the present under-25s join the workforce in unparalleled numbers this will present an imposing challenge. The gap between the working-age population and availability of jobs must be closed if this challenge is not to overwhelm the country. Millions of jobs therefore have to be created by sustained economic growth if Pakistan’s demographic transition is to turn into a bonus. The scale and quality of education has to substantially expand including girls’ education to promote greater participation by women in the work force. Sathar’s chapter rightly underscores the role of women as a decisive variable for reaping a demographic dividend.

But if Pakistan fails to improve its governance and misses the opportunity offered by changing demography a bleak future awaits the country.

Ref: Hans Groth and Alfonso Sousa-Poza, Eds. Population Dynamics in Muslim Countries: Assembling the Jigsaw, Springer-Verlag, Berlin 2012.

Dr Maleeha Lodhi served as Pakistan’s ambassador to the US and United Kingdom

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