I remember reading an article in which Minister of State for Youth Shamma Al Mazrui discussed her role and what she would like to achieve. What stood out was when she said her goal was to become “the voice of their aspirations before the leadership”. All I could think about was how hard that must be, not in terms of her becoming that voice – she’s incredibly smart, hard-working and engaging – but in defining their aspirations, or defining their aspirations as the socio-economic landscape changes in ways the UAE hasn’t seen since the discovery of oil.
Last week, I met two very different people, both young Emiratis with very different aspirations defined by two cultures – the reactive and the proactive. The first was a young man at the Tawdheef career fair. He walked up to a booth that belonged to one of the UAE’s top financial institutions and asked: “What are your working hours?” “8.30am to 4.30pm,” the employee female responded, with an awkward smile. I thought it would end there and he would walk away, but he decided to double down: “Do we have to punch in and punch out?” he asked. He had clearly done his homework – a lot of companies now use fingerprint or ID scanners to monitor when people arrive and leave, and he wanted none of that. “Yes,” the employee answered. “OK, I will come back later,” said the young man, bringing the cringeworthy exchange to an end. I bet he never came back.
The second person I met was a young woman still in high school during its “Entrepreneurial Day” event. My wife and I passed her stall, where students were presenting their business concepts. They had to have actual prototypes and business plans; most of them were already operating and selling products, from food to apparel. She sold jewellery that she had designed herself.
As she stood proudly at her booth and presented her work, she asked us a question – actually it was more of a comment, with a question somewhere in the middle. She said: “I want to build this business so that by the time I graduate I have enough money to grow the business to my full-time job. How can I do that? I don’t want to go to university or have a regular job; I want to work on this. It’s my passion.”
I won’t advocate for not pursuing higher education, but it was her ideology that fascinated me. In a society that enforces the path of school, university, job (preferably government), this young woman had gone full-on rogue. She wasn’t waiting for anybody’s permission, and at such a young age with all the external pressures, that’s somewhat rare to see in this part of the world.
In my opinion, the young man represents the reactive generation – the youth who graduate and look for the path of least resistance; an easy job where work is seen as more of social welfare or a national right; that it’s a responsibility of creating value for the country. They’re looking to be handed everything. The proactive generation are the youth who are looking to pave their own path; to create value in a way that’s unique to them. The proactive generation view it as their personal responsibility to do their best work, the work that is closest to their hearts, and they’re not waiting to be given anything from anyone – not a job, money, permission; just the freedom to create.
I feel that the direction in which the UAE is heading will only have room for one type of worker to flourish: the proactive. That’s not to say the reactive generation will be poor and homeless, but they will be in for a harsh reality check.
Emiratisation will have to hit a new normal, where only hard workers rise to the top. What really breaks my heart is that when the reactive generation, who wanted the easy way out, look back at all the opportunities they had right in front of them – the opportunities to educate themselves to the highest levels, to work in world-changing organisations and to do impactful work – they will only have themselves to blame.
Khalid Al Ameri is an Emirati columnist and social commentator. He lives in Abu Dhabi with his wife and two sons.