The Future of Work: The Transformation of Work at the Heart of Middle East Unrest
The latest entry in a special project in which business and labor leaders, social scientists, technology visionaries, activists, and journalists weigh in on the most consequential changes in the workplace.
He is a 28-year-old Egyptian with a degree in sociology. He graduated six years ago and has since had three jobs as a waiter in various Cairo coffee shops and restaurants. He wants to marry but can’t convince his sweetheart’s parents he is ready, given his employment situation. He lives with his parents, both government employees who will soon retire with government pensions. He, on the other hand, can only dream of a job that would guarantee him a pension.
Ragui Assaad is a professor at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota.
Millions of educated youth like this find themselves shut out of the middle class because of an inability to convert their education into the kind of decent job their parents found a generation ago. Even as access to education has expanded dramatically in the region, the quality of employment for educated workers has deteriorated markedly. I’d argue that the gap between what these young people expected for their education and what they have achieved is the main source of the anger and frustration driving the Arab uprisings.
A generation ago, a young person with a college degree was virtually guaranteed a place in the middle class, mostly by means of a public sector job. An Egyptian college graduate entering the labor force in 1980 had a 70-percent chance of landing a job in the public sector. That chance had fallen to 35 percent by 2012. The decline in public sector employment opportunities was only partly made up by the growth of decent jobs in the private sector. Again, in Egypt, a young college graduate in 1980 had a mere 15-percent chance of getting a formal job in the private sector. That chance had gone up to only 25 percent in 2012.
A formal job is one that complies with labor laws and regulations and provides a modicum of social protection. The remaining 40 percent who failed to obtain either public or private formal jobs in 2012 were relegated to the informal economy, with few opportunities to move to a decent job thereafter. The job prospects of high school graduates, who now make up nearly 40 percent of Egyptian youth, have deteriorated even more than those of college graduates over the past 30 years.