Pakistan will face a “demographic disaster” if it does not address the needs of its young generation, the largest in the country’s history, whose views reflect a deep disillusionment with government and democracy, according to a report released here on Saturday.
The report, commissioned by the British Council and conducted by the Nielsen research company, drew a picture of a deeply frustrated young generation that feels abandoned by its government and despondent about its future.
An overwhelming majority of young Pakistanis say their country is headed in the wrong direction, the report said, and only 1 in 10 has confidence in the government. Most see themselves as Muslim first and Pakistani second, and they are now entering a work force in which the lion’s share cannot find jobs, a potentially volatile situation if the government cannot address its concerns.
“This is a real wake-up call for the international community,” said David Steven, a fellow at the Center for International Cooperation at New York University, who was an adviser on the report. “You could get rapid social and economic change. But the other route will lead to a nightmare that would unfold over 20 to 30 years.”
The report provides an unsettling portrait of a difficult time for Pakistan, a 62-year-old nuclear-armed country that is fighting an insurgency in its western mountains and struggling to provide for its rapidly expanding population. The population has risen by almost half in just 20 years, a pace that is double the world average, according to the report.
The despair among the young generation is rooted in the condition of their lives, the report found. Only a fifth of those interviewed had permanent full-time jobs. Half said they did not have sufficient skills to enter the workplace. And one in four could not read or write, a legacy of the country’s abysmal public education system, in which less than 40 percent of children are enrolled in school, far below the South Asian average of 58 percent.
While most do not trust their government, they attach their loyalty to religion. Three-quarters identified themselves primarily as Muslim, with just one in seven identifying themselves as Pakistani.
The demographic power of this generation represents a turning point for Pakistan. Its energy, if properly harnessed, could power an economic rise, as was the case in many East Asian countries in the 1990s, Mr. Steven said in a telephone interview.
But if the opportunity is squandered by insufficient investment in areas like education and health care, the country will face a demographic disaster, the report said. To avoid that, the authors of the report calculated that Pakistan’s economy would need to grow by 36 million jobs in the next decade — about a quarter the size of the United States economy — an enormous challenge in an economy that is growing by about a million jobs a year.
Pakistan has a long way to go. The study interviewed 1,226 Pakistanis ages 18 to 29, from different backgrounds across the country, in March and April. More than 70 percent said they were worse off financially than they were last year. This year’s budget earmarks just 2 percent of the economy for education, about half the percentage spent in India and Turkey. Life in rural areas is rudimentary. The report cites data showing that 40 percent of households have no electricity, and that animal dung and leftover waste from crops account for more than 80 percent of the country’s energy use.
Young people’s biggest concern — far above terrorism — was inflation, which rose to 23 percent in 2009, pushing 7 percent of Pakistanis back into poverty, the report said. More than 90 percent agreed better quality education was a priority.
There were bright spots. The young people were civic-minded, with a third saying the purpose of education was to create good citizens. They were also more interested in collective action and volunteer activities than their parents. But they were deeply disillusioned with politics, which they saw as corrupt and based on a system in which personal connections mattered more than merit. That sentiment is borne out by the global competitiveness index of 133 countries produced by the World Economic Forum, which in 2009 put Pakistan in slot 101, two notches below Nigeria.
“Here a student struggles day and night but the son of a rich man by giving money gets higher marks than him,” the report quoted a young man in Lahore as saying.
That led to one of the report’s most surprising findings: Only a third of those polled thought democracy was the best system for Pakistan, equal to the fraction preferring Islamic law, in what David Martin, director of the British Council in Pakistan, called “an indictment of the failures of democracy over many years.”
Only 1 in 10 said they were “very interested” in political events in Pakistan, while more than a third said they were not interested at all. The highest-ranking institution was Pakistan’s military. Sixty percent of those interviewed said that they trusted it. Second highest was religious educational institutions, trusted by about 50 percent of respondents. The national government came last at 10 percent.
If the government has failed to channel the energy of Pakistan’s youth, militant groups have succeeded, drawing educated and uneducated young people with slogans of jihad and, in some cases, of social justice.
The findings were sobering for Pakistani officials. Faisal Subzwari, minister of youth affairs for Sindh Province, who attended the presentation of the report in Lahore, said: “These are the facts. They might be cruel, but we have to admit them.”
But young Pakistanis have demonstrated their appetite for collective action, with thousands of people taking to the streets last spring as part of a movement of lawyers, who were demanding the reinstatement of the chief justice, and Mr. Steven argued that the country’s future would depend on how that energy was channeled. “Can Pakistan harness this energy, or will it continue to fight against it?” he said.