Can Pakistan Avert Demographic Doom?

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On May 11, Pakistan’s Election Day, approximately 60 percent of eligible voters went to the polls. This figure far exceeded the 44 percent who turned out for Pakistan’s previous election in 2008. Media reports have featured moving accounts of the elderly being carried to the polls, and of women standing in the heat for hours to cast their ballots.

Yet one of the most defining features of the voting population was its youth. About a fifth of Pakistan’s 85 million registered voters were between 18 and 25 years old, with another 15 percent between the ages of 26 and 30.

Young people represent, by far, Pakistan’s largest demographic. The statistics are striking: Two thirds of the country’s approximately 180 million people are not yet 30 years old, and the median age is 21. As a percentage of the total population, only Yemen has more people under 24.

Little wonder youth were courted so aggressively on the campaign trail – from Imran Khan’s social media-fueled populist calls for change to Nawaz Sharif’s distribution of free laptops.

Projections suggest that Pakistan’s youth bulge will remain in place for decades. The 15-to-24 age bracket is expected to rise by 20 percent in the 2020s, and the under-24 population will still be in the majority come 2030. Even by 2050, the median age is expected to be just 33.

Demographers often speak of the “dividend” that can result from this youth-heavy population. If, they argue, these kids are properly educated and incorporated into the workforce (and particularly into burgeoning high-growth sectors like IT), then Pakistan’s sputtering economy could truly take off—and perhaps, in time, even replicate the economic triumphs of India.

Unfortunately, this will be no easy feat.

Pakistan’s government – thanks in great part to the country’s powerful military, which consumes large portions of the national budget – has never invested in the education of its masses. Consider that today, more than 40 million of Pakistan’s 70 million 5-to-19-year olds are not in school.

Meanwhile, Pakistan’s Planning Commission (a government advisory body) has estimated that employing the country’s nearly 100-million-strong under-20 population will require 9 percent GDP growth – a highly ambitious goal given that growth is expected to top out at only 3.6 percent for the current fiscal year, and that interminable power outages are undermining growth. The Asian Development Bank recently said that such outages will cut GDP growth by 2 percent annually.

Making matters worse is the fact that the Ministry of Youth has been abolished. Pakistan’s 18th constitutional amendment, passed in 2010, shifts numerous central-government responsibilities and resources to the provinces. The functions of many federal ministries (including youth, health, and agriculture) have effectively been turned over to already overburdened provincial authorities, who often lack the capacity to take them on. As a result, Pakistan’s youth policies are in flux.

Consequently, the country could soon face a new generation of uneducated and unemployed youth – a threat to stability in the notoriously volatile nation. Experts point to a combination of factors that could produce widespread youth radicalization in Pakistan. These include “push” factors such as socioeconomic inequality and hardline ideological narratives peddled by the media and school textbooks, and “pull” factors such as the country’s sharp demand for extremists. This strong market for militants can be attributed in part to the Pakistani security establishment’s historic sponsorship of sectarian and anti-India extremist organizations.

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