Crossroads Asia

The Sorrows of Kazakhstan’s Generation Z

The young generation most comfortable with technology is faced with a mix of old and new problems in Kazakhstan.

The Sorrows of Kazakhstan’s Generation Z
Credit: Pixabay / marcino

The generation that has come of age on the sidelines of a sustained economic crisis for the past decade in Kazakhstan has showed high hopes for modernization accompanied by strong traditional values, a recent sociological survey has revealed.

A research team at Narxoz University interviewed around 1,500 minors (14-17 years of age) in six major cities, excluding Almaty and Astana, the former and current capital cities.

The survey, published in November 2017, highlighted that young people rank family, health, and career as their top life priorities. Importantly, Generation Z, as it is commonly known, gives particular attention to a balanced diet and exercise compared to previous generations. In addition, these minors have an exceptional awareness of the potential of technology for their lives and their success. Digital literacy and social media presence is widespread in Kazakhstan.

Higher education can be the key to success only for one in three surveyed minors. Attending university ranks below having a hard-working attitude and strong personal connections that would help find a job. Corruption, broadly-defined, was listed among the main concerns by Kazakhstan’s youth.

Previous research on Kazakhstan’s youth also confirmed the reliance on family and political networks to achieve success.

“It is quite alarming when the cult of knowledge in society is replaced by a cult of connections, which neutralises any form of meritocracy,” Dosym Satpayev, political analyst, wrote in a report for Germany’s Friederich Ebert Foundation in 2016.

Despite judging the job market as potentially unfair to personal qualities, according to the Narxoz survey, the majority of young people in Kazakhstan want to attend university and hope to obtain a scholarship to cover the expenses.

Public universities in the country are not prohibitively expensive, but prestige and prospective job opportunities push students towards major private universities both inside the country and abroad. This would weigh heavily on the economy of a household. Therefore “41 percent of students believe they would be able to obtain a scholarship from a company or another private entity, while only 13 percent are confident to get a government scholarship,” Daniyar Kosnazarov, head of the department of Quality Assurance and Strategic Analysis at Narxoz University in Almaty, wrote in a report summarizing the research findings.

Still, many of the youth surveyed said they realize that they could earn more than their parents without focusing on education, but just by artfully and wisely using their social media presence and their digital skills, Irina Mednikova, general director of Youth Information Service of Kazakhstan (MISK), told The Diplomat in an interview.

“They understand the new, global job market and have quickly adjusted to the gig-economy. They develop in breadth rather than in depth. It is easy for them to switch companies or projects without trying to achieve perfection. They usually consider that a few months or a year on a job is enough for them,” Mednikova said.

One of the gateways to better education is the final high school exam (ENT), which has proved to be a stressful standardized test for Kazakhstan’s students. In 2015, Maksat Kairgaliyev, deputy imam the Hazret Sultan mosque in Astana, said that the stress the new test placed students under and the relatively high suicide rate for young people in Kazakhstan were linked. “This has unfortunately become a pattern,” The Conway Bulletin reported him as saying. Every year, suicides among 17- and 18-year-olds increases during the weeks before and after the ENT.

Despite attempts to change course by modifying the ENT and opening new programs for young people, for around a decade, Kazakhstan has ranked among the top-three countries in the world for youth suicides.

“Teenagers and young people are subjected to colossal pressure in terms of social norms and responsibilities: school performance, respect for teachers, conduct within the family, and the strict expectations on their sex life. The fear of being singled out as deviant from these norms can lead to tragedy,” Mednikova said.

While not all is bleak for Kazakhstan’s youth, around one-third of the respondents of the Narxoz survey said they have little confidence in the future and that they feel that their creative side is unfulfilled in the current socioeconomic milieu. From the survey data, it emerged that the youth’s typical optimism is mostly channeled towards their individuality as opposed to the course of the whole society.

Stuck in between definitions trying to label them, this post-Soviet, non-Soviet, post-Millennial generation has struggled to find an equilibrium between the precarious era of globalization and the opportunities offered by technology. Importantly, the government’s efforts in reducing the incidence of youth suicides has proved to have only a narrow reach. Perhaps Kazakhstan’s youth needs to be set free of labels and pressures and develop its own path into the future.