First published in South Asia Global Affairs magazine
The youth of Pakistan is a force full of vitality and enthusiasm. However, if consistently distanced and belittled, it could lose its energy and become a liability rather than an asset.
The ways of the world have changed;
The tune is new, instruments have changed;
Free your mind from mental slavery;
Make the young, masters of the old.
– Alama Iqbal
Today, every 40th person in this world is a Pakistani. Some 68% of the country’s population is below the age of 25, making youth an important factor in an increasingly fragile society. In fact, Pakistan’s youth alone could constitute the world’s 12th largest country. Such statistics signify the importance of young people in Pakistan; a valuable yet troublesome bulge that will indeed continue to be visible well into the mid 2020s.
The youth is often considered to be an optimistic constituent, with dreams and guided by fervor and hope. However, in Pakistan, while the numbers are high, negativity prevails. One need not go far as this trend has permeated local news channels, dominates newspaper headlines and features prominently in conversations at the mass level on any local, regional or national issue.
Education is hard to attain for most of them, health facilities are scarce and economic and social justice is simply not available for the majority. Inflation is slowly squeezing the lower and middle classes, electricity has become a luxury commodity, CNG and petrol pumps are often not operational and hunger and poverty cripple an already desperate and discontented society. In the midst of all of this, the ugly head of corruption rears itself.
Adding salt to the wound is the all-powerful threat of extremism, which is rapidly permeating an unstable economy and shaky society. Extremism is evident in recurring incidences of religious, ethnic and social intolerance. Terrorism has left more than 40,000 dead in the last decade and the Pakistani society still struggles to challenge the radical narrative, in word and spirit.
Despite the thousands of challenges Pakistan faces, this dominant section of the population, namely youth, can serve as a trump card for the future success of the country since more than 105 million people, nearly two-thirds of the entire population, comprises youth.
This section of society can become a game-changer for Pakistan and the entire region. However, if their voice is ignored and their issues not addressed, it will not be long before their despondency turns into sheer hopelessness and transforms into a mass revolt. While much hope can be placed in the youth of Pakistan, they are still nothing more than a wild card. Depending on the conditions, this huge cohort of young people can prove to be a challenge as well, either leading to conflict and violence or opening the window to new opportunities
It is critical to remember though, that the existing youth bulge grew up in troubling times and is living in even more testing circumstances. The elders of their society were not able to broaden their world-view, empower the young with the mental faculty to look for errors within and consequently be a part of the solution, rather than becoming a part of the problem.
Every mistake made was instantly blamed on a foreign conspiracy, cementing the ‘victim’ mentality. The consequent identity crisis was never subjected to an intellectual and vibrant discourse to pave the way for an ideological coherence. The youth is essentially a victim of societal trend that undermines young talent, ignores its voice in national discourse and fails to understand that in their individual and collective lives, they might not want the kind of future their elders may want them to have. Never being able to cultivate a role in their communities, the youth has never had the opportunity to hone its leadership potential and become the future stakeholders in Pakistan.
Battling this clash of generations, the youth of the country, equipped with technological advancements, is ready to break free and work towards a more prosperous and evolving society. Traveling across Pakistan and working for the Pakistan Youth Alliance has unveiled for this writer the struggle that Pakistani youth are (unknowingly) engaged in. This perhaps is the first step towards Pakistan’s empowered youth involved in the decision-making process of its communities, cities, provinces and, subsequently, the country.
In many ways, the youth of Pakistan is in a desperate search for ways to improve the lives of 190 million people and find common ground between different segments of Pakistani society. The youth today is more vocal, critical and aware of its circumstances such as debating false nationalism or questioning the role of intelligence agencies. The youth has risen as an important player in Pakistan and has played a pivotal role in the democratic history of Pakistan. Swarming on to streets the youth today debates rigid theological interpretations and politicization of religion, illustrating pluralistic tendencies in the masses.
Scores of youth-centric organizations have sprung up and most major political parties have vibrant youth wings that in 2010 and 2011, bravely battled adverse weather conditions to deliver relief to victims of floods.
The diversity that Pakistan boasts of from Karachi to Khyber, the resilience that the Pakistani nation illustrates and the untested sea of youth potential that Pakistan asserts, makes one a strong believer in a ‘better’ future of Pakistan.
But this cannot be done in isolation. The older generation needs to broaden opportunities for the young to develop the human capital through knowledge and advice. By giving the youth an active role in the collective lives of neighborhoods, communities and the society at large, all generations can work together towards a more prosperous Pakistan.
It is up to the current stakeholders of Pakistan and the Pakistani system whether it wants to engage with and consider this youth bulge a ‘gift’ or turn its back on an opportunity that may transform into a ‘curse’, ready to rear its ugly head sooner than later.
Syed Ali Abbas Zaidi is the founder of the Pakistan Youth Alliance, CEC at Khudi Pakistan and community lead at Hosh Media.