The results of this year's Arab Youth Survey were published last week. In its 13th year, this is the most extensive study of its kind in the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) region. The 2021 survey spanned 17 Arab states and included 3,400 respondents aged 18 to 24. One of the survey's focal points was education and employment – both areas have significant implications on emotional well-being and mental health.
According to the World Bank, unemployment among Arab youth across the Mena region is high at 25 per cent compared to the age-matched global average of 13.5 per cent. Decades of research tells us that youth unemployment is related to a decline in physical and mental health. It is also associated with increased health-risk behaviours such as smoking, alcohol consumption and substance misuse.
A Swedish study published in the British Medical Journal in 2017 looked at over 14000 people between the ages of 17 to 24. This study was unique in that it looked at two groups of young adults when the national levels of unemployment were high (19 per cent) and low (5 per cent). As expected, the study found that youth unemployment was associated with an increased risk of being diagnosed with a mental health problem (twice as likely). However, this increased risk was independent of the overall national youth unemployment rate.
Several nations have witnessed a distinct increase in young people (16 to 24) categorised as "Neets", or "not in education, employment or training". For example, data published by the UK's department of education last year suggests that the number of Neets in the UK doubled between 2012 and 2018 – from 11.7 to 23.9 per cent. Additionally, the rate of mental health problems among Neets, at 22 per cent, is more than three times higher than among their non-Neet counterparts.
It can, however, be difficult to distinguish cause from consequence when looking at the link between mental health and unemployment. For example, having a mental health problem might make it harder to find or remain employed. Similarly, losing a job, or finding it difficult to be hired, can lead to mental health issues.
Research that observed people who have lost jobs confirms that unemployment can lead to poorer mental health. This can be due to poverty, loss of purpose, identity, social connections, routine, and more. Numerous studies also report an association between recession (causing higher unemployment) and worsening mental health (higher rates of depression, anxiety, substance misuse and suicide).
The relatively high rates of youth unemployment across the Mena region makes this a cause of concern. Figures from The Arab Youth Survey suggest that education is one possible, partial explanation for the region's high youth unemployment rate. The report says that the vast majority (87 per cent) of respondents were at least somewhat concerned about the quality of the education they received in their respective countries.
Covid-19 has not helped matters. The necessary infection-prevention measures have, in many cases, detrimentally impacted the educational experience. Even in the best of circumstances – in the UAE, for example – 51 per cent of respondents felt that the pandemic had negatively affected their educational experience. In Syria, 97 per cent of respondents reported a negative impact.
Education the world over is ripe for an overhaul. In their book, The Fourth Education Revolution, historian and British educator Anthony Seldon with co-author Oladimeji Abidoye, suggest that information-age technologies, such as Artificial Intelligence, will radically transform the way we do everything, and this applies also to education. Opening our eyes to these changes, they advise, will allow us to shape the future in the best interests of humanity.
For me, schools of the future would focus on traditional learning outcomes such as critical thinking, information literacy, communication and problem-solving. They would also focus on emotional agility, psychological resilience, creativity and how best to use leisure time. Many of today's institutions claim to prepare students for the world of work, but perhaps we might also consider preparing students for a world of leisure. Many workplaces (such as Microsoft) are already experimenting with a shorter working week. Ultimately, technology can save us time and labour. What will we do with all the time we save?
In 1516, Thomas More published a work of fiction entitled Utopia, a word derived from classical Greek, meaning "no place". More's utopia was an imaginary island where everybody worked for just a few hours each day, leaving lots of study time. For Utopians, happiness was best achieved by continuously improving the mind.
As one part of a broader ecosystem, education has a critical role in realising our utopias. It can also play a crucial part in preparing us to deal with disappointment and patiently persevere when times are tough.