Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The great "Egyptian Dream"

Presenting, ladies and gentlemen, a new guest blogger: Ian Wylie is one of the staff of Project Tahrir, and he's written the following reflection on ideas of prosperity and meritocracy in the new Egypt:

Last week in Minya, a meeting on youth unemployment ended with a majority of its attendees declaring it a failure. Hosted by a local NGO, it united factory owners, government officials and young people in mutually criticizing each other’s ideas on the obstacles to employment in their city. However, the meeting illustrated how young activists are introducing new socio-economic ideas to solve the problem of unemployment in the local economy. The result is a clash of these ideas with the status quo, represented by factory owners and the local government.

As a case study, Minya is representative of a number of Egyptian cities with an industrial base. Minya has seen strong economic growth in the past decade because of its strategic location on the Nile. But like a number of cities, Minya has a high unemployment rate for college - educated young people between the ages of 18 - 25.

In this respect, Minya is not particularly unique: college-educated youth are having difficulty finding white-collar jobs, typically taking blue-collar jobs for which they are overqualified. These jobs require some schooling but no more beyond high school. Young Minyans are in turn reluctant to accept these positions, preferring to hold out for a place in the government. This has created a shortage of labour for Minyan factory owners, who are struggling to find personnel to fill their entry-level, manual labour jobs.

For the factory owners, it is a poisonous sense of entitlement that keeps young people from taking factory jobs and being employed. They make demands for higher salaries and are resistant to manual labour. They want a desk job with a good salary at the outset. These demands are seen as unreasonable. Instead, young people must drop their haughty expectations and accept a low salary for the prospect of a higher return at a later date. 

For the young Egyptians in attendance, the problem lay with a stagnant economy that failed to reward individual merit. Young people preferred desk jobs to manual labour because they carried more prestige, but this prestige was rooted in the ability of desk jobs to offer longer term benefits. Desk jobs carried promotions based on knowledge and transferable skills which made moving between jobs in the economy possible. In addition, they offered increased stability, easier working conditions, more central locations in urban centres and higher salaries.

In contrast, factory jobs are notorious for low wages, a lack of upward mobility and a pervasive sense of instability. They come at an increase cost to personal health (in a country without healthcare programs) and often require long commutes to industrial areas located outside city limits. Of the hundreds of employees on a factory floor, only a few will be promoted to middle management in a given year. The rest can expect to work in a factory job without a change in their economic welfare.

With this in mind, the young people in attendance proposed a compromise that gave certain workers’ rights greater weight in factories; such as a living wage, non-discriminatory employment practices and regular promotions. The response of the factory owners to this proposal was tepid.

Among the most outspoken opponent was a clothing manufacturer named Mustafa. He declared that before an employee could discuss their rights, they must first meet their duties to their employer. This meant accepting a low wage for at least a year before discussing possibility of a raise or promotion. To justify this argument, Mustafa pointed to his achievement of the success through hard work, without the contracts between employee and employer under debate.

With this point, the factory owners continued to locate the cause of unemployment in the attitudes of young people. The factory owners argued for increased training programs and education seminars to help instruct young employees on the value of factory work. In one concession, they offered to provide training in workplace skills that could prove transferable should employees choose to leave their factories. They also made promises to bolster the perks in their factories, like free meals and buses to work.

Yet with the young people locating the problem principally with the economic system, the meeting reached an impasse. Both group’s ended up criticizing the others’ position and the failure of the meeting highlighted the gap in understanding between the two groups of attendees.

Exposed to economies outside Egypt and aware of the stresses on their parents generation, young Minyans have rejected working in a system that is largely viewed as chronically failing to reward merit. They are a well-educated generation, deeply concerned with living a comfortable life in a well paying desk job, won through college-earned skills. Blaming a sense of entitlement for this objective understates the significance of structural problems in the minds of young people.

Young Egyptians are not content waiting for a vague, future promise of wealth. Instead, they want a system designed to reward and enshrine fair compensation for their skills. This is in reach if the old features of a discriminatory, exploitive and stagnant economic environment are reformed, replaced with a system that harnesses and promotes creative effort. For many young people, this is the new Egyptian Dream.

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