Making the most of our youth

Written by
Changeboard Team

22 Jul 2016

22 Jul 2016 • by Changeboard Team

Setting the stage

At a time when most other populations are in decline, the Arab world’s is expected to double by 2050 to reach 278 million from the current 145 million, according to the United Nations Development Programme (2010).

The talent of young people offers the greatest productive opportunity for the region since oil and gas were discovered in the middle of the last century. However, having a young working-age population is not a sufficient condition for enhancing the productive capacity required to drive future economic growth through our HR practices.

Although 60% of the population in the Arab world is under 30, we have collectively failed to fully tap into the creativity, productivity and contribution of our youth for the region’s development. A young, working-age population that is miseducated, under-employed, lacking in practical, relevant skills or disengaged from work is a recipe for poor workplace productivity and wellbeing. It is critical that our education and health systems, labour markets, employers and governments provide the right eco-system to help this generation thrive.

The economic impact of the loss of youth unemployment to the Arab world is estimated at between $40 billion and $50 billion annually. Youth unemployment is a global concern. Worldwide, young people are three times more likely than their parents to be out of work (The Economist, 2013). However, in contrast to global patterns, what is most concerning for our region is the nature of unemployment. In most parts of the world, the duration of joblessness is shorter for youths than for adults, reflecting the tendency of youth to move more frequently between jobs. In most MENA countries, youth unemployment appears to be the result of waiting for the ‘right’ job. During school-to-work transition in the Middle East, long unemployment durations are common. For example, in Bahrain, the youth are willing to wait up to eight years to find the ‘right job’ (Booz & Company, 2010).

This extended state of unemployment reflects a misalignment between the expectations of the younger generation and the quality of jobs available, the fabric of female employment, and a preference to work in the public sector. It is also critical to highlight that there is a prevalence of underemployment, where GCC nationals may be formally ‘employed’ but in many cases are faced with low expectations in terms of their contribution and productive output in our organisations because of quotadriven nationalisation approaches.

Square pegs in round holes?

A combination of factors, such as those listed below, may be leading to lower levels of motivation towards achieving greater employability among the younger generation.

  • Accelerating regulatory amendments towards nationalisation may have unintentional consequences over time. For instance, we see a fall in employability, psychological strengths and formal educational outcomes, particularly for GCC national boys, which is partly attributable to a lack of incentives to achieve, normally presented by more competitive labour markets. In some cases, we see an over-emphasis by employers on reacting to specifics of labour market reform in the region, without adequate consideration for aligning skills and aspirations of youths to the right jobs.
  • In the educational eco-system, youths are exposed to older, less applied methods of education and instruction, which tend to be largely didactic and based on rote learning. Our education systems are misaligned with the needs of employers and students in knowledge-based economies of the future.
  • As youth begin their employment journey, they are supported by structured ‘remedial’ nationalisation programmes in organisations, focusing on personal development gaps. They are usually not equipped with positive work and life skills that are critical for their future.
  • There is a general lowering of personal productivity expectations from younger nationals, both expats and older GCC national colleagues. We hear from youths who say things like “we’re bored”, “no one expects much of us at work, we do lots of training and non-essential work – but we want to learn and have a real job”.
  • We also see the onset of an early-mid career crisis, where those aged between 25 and 34 are experiencing the lowest levels of engagement compared with other age groups. This can largely be attributed to the absence of basic life and work skills among younger generations – a relative lack of ability to deal with work and personal pressures and bouncing back from failure.
  • Another factor that affects career and educational choices is the impact of family and peers. Coupled with the basic level of career counselling and guidance in the region, and the driver of choosing socially acceptable jobs, our youth can be square pegs in round holes (in jobs not always aligned with their skills, interests or aspirations). 

Concerns over youth unemployment and de-motivation are detrimental to the region’s growth, so creating positive work opportunities for the younger generation is arguably the biggest priority for GCC policymakers. To meet the demands of a fast-growing population and move towards a more competitive, knowledge economy, the onus is largely on the private sector to create the estimated 85 million new jobs needed by 2020 in the Arab world (IFC, 2011). 

Have we missed the bus?

One of the essential factors inhibiting employment of young nationals is that private-sector employers believe they do not have the required skills for work, which are often referred to as ‘employability skills’, relating to personal productivity and practical capacity to deliver results in the face of changing job requirements. Simply defined, ‘employability’ consists of knowledge (what they know), skills (what they do with what they know) and attitudes (how they do it).

One may argue that our education system is misaligned for most employers and young people, particularly in the Arab world, but also in many other parts of the globe. Less than half of students (45%) and employers (42%) believe education has prepared them for work, according to a global study (McKinsey, 2012). lronically, 72% of educational providers believe students are adequately prepared for work. Hence, students report that the relevance of their education to the job market is insufficient. Furthermore, most students need to wait six to 12 months to find employment and more than half are unable to do so in their chosen area of study.

The global trends are being witnessed in our region too. Only 22% of young nationals believe their country’s education system helped prepare them (or is preparing them) to find a job (Booz & Company, 2012). Only 29% of GCC employers feel that education prepares students with the necessary technical skills and just 19% agree that it prepares young people with the right attitude for work (EY, 2014). 

Tapping into the strengths and skills of youth

We believe that discovering, understanding and building on the personal strengths, motivation and aspirations of youth will go a long way in supporting their employment, engagement, performance, productivity and wellbeing. 

Strength approach to enhanced employability

The Talent Enterprise’s work leads us to emphasise the value of developing and strengthening key employability skills such as empathy, goal-setting, determination, resilience, self-confidence, self-efficacy, building a sense of meaning, which can be incorporated into the curriculum or added to formal instruction both by educational institutions and employers.

It is equally critical to focus on youth motivation, inculcate work ethics and establish the right incentives in order for the younger generation to develop. Advances in behavioural sciences may significantly contribute to both the research and development of evidence-based practices in enhancing employability and life skills.

Previous research has established that aspects such as self-discipline and grit are some of the most important predictors of student performance and achievement (Duckworth, 2005). Those with high levels of grit complete more years of education and make fewer career changes.

Research by The Talent Enterprise is among more than 3,000 responses to our psychometric instrument, the Youth Thriving Index, assessed the strengths and work orientations of GCC national youth. Our GCC national youth possess an incredible set of strengths: seeking to achieve, being analytical, determined, and wanting to develop. Interestingly, one of the most notable insights from those with the highest strengths shows that GCC national youth have high levels of extrinsic motivation concurrent with significant levels of intrinsic motivation. Hence, aspects such as external rewards and recognition are as critical for the younger generation as a feeling of purpose and contribution to developing themselves and their communities.

Our younger generation report the lowest scores on control, flexibility, curiosity, self-efficacy, autonomy, affiliation, empathy, absorption and confidence. Arguably, each of these are critical from a life and employability skills perspective and it would be essential to deliver programmes to build these strengths among our youth.

Our region has a tremendous opportunity to tap into the creativity, energy and potential that our youth can offer. We need to help them find the right opportunities to be economically and socially active by providing the right work for them based on their skills, strengths and aspirations.

Building strengths-based employability and life skills programmes during education and into early employment would go a long way to investing in their future.

This article is a summary of a paper the authors presented at the Gulf Research Meeting at Cambridge University in August 2014

David Jones: Managing director

David Jones

David is a senior adviser to policymakers, business leaders and HR professionals on strategic human capital issues.

Radhika Punshi: Consulting director


Radhika is an organisational psychologist and HR expert focusing on local talent development, nationalisation, gender and youth inclusion.