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January 10, 2008

The Youth Boom in Iran

In the world of demography, the term “demographic gift” refers to a situation where fertility and mortality rates fall and the resulting shift in population creates an influx of working age young people in a nation. This “boom” can help turn an entire nation around as a flood of young citizens can rejuvenate a lagging economy or bolster a weakened government. While a large workforce can be a powerful asset for a country, it will be difficult for Iran to develop opportunities for its youth without radical policy changes.

In order to address these issues, the Wolfensohn Center for Development at the Brookings institute, partnered with the Dubai School of Government hosted a panel discussion concerning the evolving demographic changes and the political economy of specific Middle Eastern countries. Titled “From Oil Boom to Youth Boom: Tapping the Middle East Demographic Gift,” the forum included an analysis from Virginia Tech Professor of Economics and visiting fellow at the Brookings Institute, Djavad Salehi Isfahani.

Isfahani covered issues ranging from unemployment to the inability of the government to give opportunities to its educated young people to the difficulty of impoverished Iranians to marry. Isfahani believes that Iran must pursue economic and educational reform in order to take full advantage of the boom. He claimed that the current system lacked the ability to supply satisfying jobs for qualified Iranians with even the most prestigious of educations.

Another major reason for the lack of development in the Iranian economy is due to the general sentiment amongst the Iranian students that a solution will come from the powers that be. Isfahani mentioned the story of an Iranian student with 17 years of education who makes a living selling fruit from a street stall. “The government can solve all our problems if they set their minds to it,” the student said.

Recent actions by both the current and previous administrations have canceled each other out. President Khatami had worked to develop job funding as an effort to stimulate the economy and present more opportunities for young graduates. Current president Mahmud Ahmadinejad has since replaced the job funding with the “love fund,” an effort to subsidize marriage for impoverished Iranians. But it is precisely the lack of money from new jobs that has caused the current stall in youth marriages.

Iran currently stands with most of the Middle East in terms of its burgeoning youth population (people aged between 15-29) which is nearing 25 million. According to Isfahani, Iran is poised to find this demographic explosion as more of a challenge than an opportunity. Of the youth population, which recently overcame the number of adults (aged 30-60), the proportion of unemployed is bordering on the insupportable with 2.3 million of the nation’s 3 million unemployed coming from this age group.

Isfahani focused on the current education system in Iran and its use of the “concour,” a largely memorization-based national exam that is the overriding indicator of a student’s academic future and, according to Isfahani, a major reason for the need for education reform in Iran. He referred to the concour as the cause of Iran’s overly diploma oriented culture that results in the primacy of memorization and technical knowledge over creativity as well as the disillusionment of all but the most intelligent students (a large number of students do not qualify for exclusive areas of study such as engineering). Isfahani says that this system precipitates long periods of unemployment for individuals and general dissatisfaction.

The Iranian government has recently begun implementing a program that will completely eliminate the concour by 2011 and refocus the educational system around high school grades. According to Isfahani, small changes like the end of the concour are a good beginning but will do little if not followed by more progressive, long-term changes.

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