From the very beginning, many of the protesters at Occupy Wall Street have made clear that the events in Egypt’s Tahrir Square and “the Arab Spring” provided inspiration for the Occupy movement. As a result, one thing I’ve been curious about is how closely the economic and social conditions in the United States that led to the Occupy movement correspond to those that sparked the protests that came to be dubbed the Arab Spring.
So I was very interested to discover over at Rortybomb that Mike Konczal has a post up comparing the Arab Spring countries to the United States with regard to at least one metric.
Specifically, Konczal looks at the “youth unemployment rate” found in the U.S. and in various Arab Spring countries and explains that
[O]ne way people are trying to understand the Arab Spring is through the lens of mass youth unemployment and inequality. Given how high unemployment has been in these MENA – Middle-East and North African – countries, what else could we expect besides revolution?
Konczal then presents the following chart comparing youth unemployment in the United States to that in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Morocco and the MENA countries as a whole:
As Konczal then makes clear,
. . . . I’m including ages 16 – 19 and ages 16-24 [for the United States], though I believe [the IMF data is] more likely looking at 16 – 24. For 16 – 19, we are at the same level of youth unemployment for Egypt and well above the region as a whole. At the broader 16 – 24 range, we are above Syria and Morocco, which both saw large-scale movement in the Arab Spring.
So, does this mean youth unemployment in the United States is comparable to what we see in the MENA countries and, if so, does that forebode a significant realignment in American society? Unfortunately, I don’t think either question can be answered in the affirmative if those answers were to be based on this data alone.
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To begin with, I disagree with Konczal's conclusion that America's youth unemployment rate is "in line with" the rates found in the Arab Spring countries -- I just don’t see that the rates are comparable. Given the reality of employment for American youth, the idea that a broad, national movement might have resulted from high unemployment among America’s 16 – 19 year olds alone seems a bit far-fetched. Accordingly, I think that the 16 – 24 American age cohort is the appropriate one on which to focus.
But an 18% unemployment rate for this age cohort just does not really compare to what we saw in the Arab Spring countries. Sure, it’s higher than the rates found in Syria and Morocco, but it’s 17.5% lower than that of the MENA countries as a whole and a whole lot lower than the youth unemployment rates found in Egypt and Tunisia – the countries that achieved the most significant social change as part of the Arab Spring.
Quite simply, if the argument is that the protests sweeping the Arab Spring countries earlier this year were sparked by high levels of youth unemployment, I think one has to admit that we just don’t see levels that high here in the United States. Not yet, anyway.
But let’s assume my interpretation of this data is incorrect and that America’s youth unemployment rate should be deemed comparable to those of the Arab Spring countries. Does this mean significant social change is imminent? Based on nothing more than the fact America has a high percentage of unemployed, disaffected youth can we expect to see in America what we saw in Tunisia and Egypt? Given the strict parameters of that question, I’d say the answer, again, is "no."
A few months ago, before the Occupy movement began, Ramon Glazov had an article in The Exiled Online titled “Burmese Daze: Making Sense of Myanmar’s Mess.” This passage snagged my attention:
[P]opular uprisings really only succeed in countries with large populations of angry young men. Poland in the early 80s. Romania in ’89, Czechoslovakia in ’89, Indonesia in ’98, Egypt in ’11 – look at the population pyramids for those countries, and you’ll see they had an awful lot of 15 – 25 year olds, right when the shit hit the entrenched-ruling-elite fan.
Same goes for the pro-Western “color revolutions” in the Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan: demographic spikes in the 15 – 19 and 20 – 25 groups followed by rapid regime change. With revolutions, it’s age that matters. More than geography. Maybe more than ethnicity. Definitely more than fucking Twitter.
Wanna know just one reason why Western countries are so apathetic? Look at America’s boomer-dominated population pyramid. (Australia’s is pretty much the same shape – my generation won’t come equal with our boomers until 2020.) Just as there’s safety in numbers, there’s also power in numbers, and, in the West, young people know damn well they’re not powerful.
This strikes me as largely correct, so I did a little data digging and crunched some numbers. According to the best estimate of the U.S. Census, there are about 43,626,000 million Americans between the ages of 15 and 24, out of a total population of around 308,746,000. This means that American youth accounts for only 14.13% of the entire population.
I wasn’t able to find hard data breaking down the populations of Egypt, Tunisia, Syria and Morocco into the 15 – 24 age cohort, but it’s fairly well known that their total populations include a much larger percentage of young people than does ours. Konczal himself acknowledges this when he writes that the “MENA countries . . . have huge demographic issues to deal with – they have a massive wave of people under 35 years of age to assimilate into their economics [sic].”
Moreover, according to the CIA World Fact Book, I was able to find the median age for these countries’ populations:
Egypt 24 yrs.
Tunisia 30 yrs.
Syria 22 yrs.
Morocco 26 yrs.
In the United States, the median age is 37 years. So, yeah . . . it’s fairly safe to say that the populations of all these countries skew a whole lot younger than does that of the United States.
The bottom line is that the United States’ “youth unemployment rate” is not comparable to that of the Arab Spring countries, and – even if it were – the inexorable result of our age demographics means that young people in the United States simply do not wield nearly the same kind of raw political power as do young people in the Arab Spring countries.
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But before anybody complains that I’m dropping a wet blanket on the Occupy movement, let’s be real clear about something: all I am doing is analyzing data relevant to a theory about the proximate cause of the Arab Spring. I, at least, am aware of no hard evidence suggesting that the success experienced by the protesters in Egypt’s Tahrir Square or in any of the other Arab Spring countries resulted entirely from a high youth unemployment rate. That suggestion is merely one proposed explanation for what we saw earlier this year.
More importantly, even if a high youth unemployment rate is sufficient to spark the kind of protests that led to the Arab Spring, that doesn’t mean a high youth unemployment rate is necessary to spark that kind of a protest movement. And, to be sure, a large number of Occupy protesters have raised complaints about a lack of employment opportunities for the young and the truly soul-crushing levels of student debt they’ve had to take on in order to get an education, but these aren’t the only complaints that have been raised.
All one has to do is go to the We Are the 99% Tumblr in order to read about people of all ages describing various but severe problems they are now facing – an inability to make mortgage payments, lack of health insurance for themselves or their family, no home of their own, having been economically devastated by medical problems, etc. – but all of them ultimately turning on the same theme: it isn’t supposed to be this difficult to get a job, to work hard, and to do well or at the very least be minimally economically secure in America. There is something wrong with our system that it no longer works for 99% of us, and it needs fixing.
In his post, Konczal began his examination asking whether it is “useful to think of the Occupy movement more as a ‘left’ movement or a ‘youth’ movement?” Had he just looked to the people who make up the 99% and who post their photos on the tumblr, I think he’d have been able to answer that question pretty easily: it’s an everybody movement.