My generation was taught that all we needed to succeed was an education and hard work. Tell that to my friend from high school who studied Chinese and international relations at a top-tier college. He had the misfortune to graduate in the class of 2009, and could find paid work only as a lifeguard and a personal trainer. Unpaid internships at research institutes led to nothing. After more than a year he moved back in with his parents.
Millions of college graduates in rich nations could tell similar stories. In Italy, Portugal and Spain, about one-fourth of college graduates under the age of 25 are unemployed. In the United States, the official unemployment rate for this group is 11.2 percent, but for college graduates 25 and over it is only 4.5 percent.
The uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa are a warning for the developed world. Even if an Egyptian-style revolution breaking out in a rich democracy is unthinkable, it is easy to recognize the frustration of a generation that lacks opportunity. Indeed, the “desperate generation” in Portugal got tens of thousands of people to participate in nationwide protests on March 12. How much longer until the rest of the rich world follows their lead?
In virtually every human society it is the younger people--ages 15-24 in particular--where frustrations are apt to build up. If a society has a huge bulge at that age, then this may well be kindling for a fire lit by an event such as the self-immolation of the young man in a Tunisian village. The critical difference, however, between being a young person in a rich democratic country and one in a poor autocratic one is the fact that the former can imagine a future where life will be better--even if one has to wait longer than expected--whereas the latter have no such expectations or even hopes. There are probably not enough resources on the planet for every generation of young people in rich countries to be dramatically better off than their parents, but the average person in the US already has nearly 20 times the annual income of someone in Egypt, so the level of frustration is bound to be different in these two situations.