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Sunday, April 14, 2024

The future is young and so is Pakistan

Dr. Adil Najam, the founding Dean of the Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University who has also served as VC of LUMS University, and his associates trace the desires and aspirations of Pakistan’s youth and discuss the need for the 3 E’s to harness Pakistan’s youth: Education, Employment & Engagement.

Dr. Adil Najam, Meeran Jamal, Umer Akhlaq Malik |

A staggering 90 percent of the world’s 1.8 billion youth live in less developed countries, with almost one-fourth concentrated in South Asia. Pakistan is currently not only one of the youngest countries in the world, but also the second youngest in South Asia after Afghanistan.

The world is young, but Pakistan is even younger, 29 percent of Pakistanis are between the ages of 15 and 29, and overall 64 percent are below the age of 30. Pakistan has the largest number of young people ever recorded in its history, and this number will continue to increase till about 2050.

However, the youth are no longer only the future, they are the present too. The question now is what are we going to do about it? Are we going to invest in these young people, realize the potential of the much-feted youth bulge or are we just going to sit as spectators and see yet another opportunity of a better tomorrow grow old with time?


They can define the direction we are headed in as a society. Not tomorrow, but today!  The question is while this generation is visible everywhere, we seem them on the streets and on our TV screens, but do we understand their thoughts, their needs and their aspirations? Do we appreciate what it means to be young in Pakistan?

Do we recognize that the “youth” is not just a homogenous mass? Interestingly, despite the growing political consensus about the youth’s significance for economic growth, and the importance of reflecting their needs in policymaking, there has never been a comprehensive survey encompassing all aspects of the Pakistani youth and their lives.

Are we going to invest in these young people, realize the potential of the much-feted youth bulge or are we just going to sit as spectators and see yet another opportunity of a better tomorrow grow old with time.

The recently released Pakistan National Human Development Report (NHDR) on youth, commissioned by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Pakistan, was the first step towards understanding what it means to be young in Pakistan. The NHDR is essentially a report “by the youth, for the youth”.

Having been involved in this journey, we can say with confidence that this has been an intensely inclusive and participatory process. Together, we reached out to a total of 130,000 individuals across the country, including politicians, policy professionals, pundits, public intellectuals, personalities, and of course, lots of young people.

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Three years ago, we embarked on this journey, along with our research team of extremely bright, dedicated young Pakistanis. We spent a great deal of time listening to young Pakistanis from all across the country, with a special focus on the underprivileged and the marginalized.

This was done through the National Youth Perceptions Survey, the Razakar (volunteers) programme, #KhwabPakistan (Dream Pakistan, involving young leaders), Your Idea Counts campaign, youth conferences, an art competition, video messages, radio shows and with the use of online platforms, like Twitter and Facebook.

What we learned has left us dazed, amazed, elated, disturbed, hopeful and scared. All at the same time. Most of all, it has left us convinced that the future of Pakistan — good or bad — will be determined by those who are presently between the ages of 15 and 29. However, the richest insights came neither through the experts nor through the data collected.

They came from 81 national youth consultations held with the young people of Pakistan from all different corners from Kalash to Karachi to Khuzdar; from Gwadar to Gujar Khan to Ghizer. The wide array of opinions and aspirations we heard from these young people confirmed the basic heterogeneous composition of Pakistan’s youth.

So, we went a step further, by using our survey and other data to visualize what the youth of Pakistan would look like if we could reduce all of them to a representative sample of 100 young people. The results were a mix of the obvious and the very surprising.

It has left us convinced that the future of Pakistan — good or bad — will be determined by those who are presently between the ages of 15 and 29.

The most obvious, but still worth mentioning nonetheless, is that out of a 100 young people in Pakistan, as many as 55 would live in Punjab, 23 in Sindh, 14 in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and only four in Balochistan. The remaining four would come from Azad Jammu and Kashmir, Gilgit-Baltistan and FATA. On education, we can say that 30 of the 100 would not be able to read or write.

Only six would have 12 years or more of education, 29 would have none. Unsurprisingly, 94 of the 100 would have no access to a library. Only 38 out of the 100 youth will say they play sports frequently. Moreover, only seven out of 100 will have access to sports facilities. In terms of communication links: 52 percent would own a mobile phone, but only 15 would have access to the internet.

Of the 100, only 23 would have their own transportation, whereas only one would have a car, 12 a motorcycle, and 10 a bicycle. Positively, political engagement amongst the young is very high: while only 24 will say they trust political leaders, 90 percent of males and 55 percent of women will express their intent to vote in the next elections.

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Happily, for the country, 70 of the 100 young Pakistanis would say they feel safe, 89 would say they feel happy, 67 would say their life is better than their parents, And 48 would say that Pakistan’s future is bright (as opposed to the 36 who believe it would be bleak). In short, the world of young Pakistanis is as diverse, differentiated, and divided as the rest of Pakistan.

However, they also have greater expectations and aspirations, which, if nurtured properly, could yield high dividends. Along with this comes much impatience and restlessness which, if ignored, could result in disaster. Whether one seeks high payoff or reduced risk, there is no better investment to make in Pakistan today than investment in the youth.

Our research posits that thoughtful and immediate investment in youth development – providing them with what we call the three E’s; quality education, gainful employment and meaningful engagement opportunities, can keep the country’s tide moving in the right direction; empowering them to unleash their potential. Deny them, and what we will end up with is an angry and anguished youth.


Despite, Article 25A of Pakistan’s Constitution which promises education to all children of school-going age, we still have a  high number of children who are out of school or without an education. This made us wonder, how long would it take to fully implement Article 25A and get all the children – or at least a majority – in Pakistan enrolled within the education system. Our calculations gave us a harrowing answer.

At the current net enrolment growth rate of almost one percent, it will take another 58 years to reach the target of ‘zero out-of-school’ children, that is, we would meet it in the year 2076! To get to the target sooner we increased the net enrollment and found out that to meet the goal before 2050, we would need to double the net growth rate in school enrollment.

Whereas, to reach the Sustainable Development Goal target of 2030, we would have to nearly quadruple the current net enrollment growth rate. This poses a huge challenge, however, we discovered an even bigger challenge to be the “quality of education”.

The current situation classifies quality education as a luxury, accessible only to those who can pay the price. This creates further class distinctions in society, as the opportunities in life for those with quality education are far better than those with poor quality education. This has a direct bearing on the second ‘E’: Employment.

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The youth makes up 41.6 percent of Pakistan’s total labor force, and almost 4 million young people attain working age every year in Pakistan, we became curious to know the number of jobs that would be needed to absorb everyone into the job market.

Therefore, we estimated that to absorb this populace into the job market – at the current participation and unemployment levels (5.8 percent), considering the number of retirees – Pakistan needs to create 4.5 million new jobs over the next 5 years (0.9 million jobs annually).

Daunting as this challenge may seem, it is an achievable goal. The much more important, and difficult, task is to provide gainful employment. The problem is that on the one hand, employers complain that the majority of young workers lack the necessary skills and qualification for entering the job market.

However, they also have greater expectations and aspirations, which, if nurtured properly, could yield high dividends. Along with this comes much impatience and restlessness which, if ignored, could result in disaster.

On the other hand, they produce a bulk of low-quality jobs that are casual, unreliable, and unsafe, without rudimentary benefits or basic dignity for the worker. This upsets the balance of demand and supply in the labor market.

The crisis is even deeper for women in the workplace. Just like the lack of toilets in schools are a major reason for girls to drop out, the lack of basic facilities, such as transportation, maternity leaves, and anti-harassment laws, in the workplace becomes an exclusionary device for the female employee.

Merely educating young people and providing jobs does not empower them, unless they themselves feel that they can, in some capacity, influence the decisions that shape their lives. This leads us to the third ‘E’ that is interlinked with the other two E’s education and employment.

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The third ‘E’ is meaningful “Engagement”: the belief amongst the young that they have a voice in the most important decisions that impact their lives. It was saddening to hear that most young people believe that they are never heard, and felt that they had no choice in making the most important decisions in their lives.

It was alarming to realize that they were desperate to find ways to make their voices heard. The context, however, does not make things easier. Our research teams visited Peshawar literally days after the horrendous APS terror attack. As we spoke to young people in the terror-stricken city, two things became very clear.

Future of Pakistan

First, this was a generation that had grown up with violence and insecurity. Second, in too many of the recent terrorist attacks, it is the young who do the killing and it is also the young who are dying. Even as things become better, the scars of this legacy will not heal easily. Also evident was the fact that the intolerance, doubt and distrust that defines our society at large has been passed on to our young.

Within this context, the space for meaningful engagement is even more constrained. On the other hand, our research found out that despite the constraints the desire to engage is palpable. This is evident from examples of entrepreneurial energy — for business as well as social causes — that find their way to shine across all geographies and classes.

A few good examples are: the invention of the designer naan, the introduction of women-focused pink rickshaws, a group of young women reclaiming public spaces and defying conservative social norms by “loitering” at tea-stalls and cafes, the spontaneous blossoming of Dewar-i-Meharbani across all major cities in Pakistan and various app development sprouting everywhere.

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Young people in all domains and at all levels, from different geographies and backgrounds, are demanding change and demonstrating that they are willing and able to “be the change” that they want. We realized, the challenges in education, employment and engagement for our youth are, indeed, monumental.

Yet, with the youth willing to do what it takes to change things, they are not insurmountable. Pakistan’s youth is buzzing with brilliant, innovative ideas, propelled by unbounded energy and a desire to act. These three years of listening has reinforced our belief that the most important and best source of ideas to help the youth are from the youth themselves.

Future of Pakistan

We just need to listen, respect and learn from them. They warrant a favorable policy environment, institutional support and the societal space to nurture their energies and ideas.

They deserve better than to have to fill in for deficiencies of the state and society that confront them. The choice between providing Pakistan’s youth this environment, support, and space, or not, is the difference between a future defined by a youth boom or a youth bust.

Dr. Adil Najam is the co-lead author for Pakistan National Human Development Report. He is the inaugural dean of the Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University and has previously served as vice-chancellor of the LUMS university.

Umer is a Policy Analyst with UNDP Pakistan. He has previously worked with Mahbub ul Haq Centre contributing to South Asia Human Development Report.

Meeran is a Young Professional associated with the Report and contributed significantly to research and advocacy for the Report. She holds a Masters from the University of Nottingham in International Development Management. 

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.