Turkey is fed up with youth statistics...
There is not a single day on which the same old figures on youth unemployment and education are not published and discussed. And these numbers have not improved much since the first ever national youth report prepared by UNDP in Turkey almost fifteen years ago. Since then despite all the policy work, the youth scene is getting worse every day, even without the effects of the pandemic.
Here, for a change I will try not to bombard you with already well-known national statistics on youth unemployment. But let me compare just two figures: The youth unemployment rate was 18 per cent when the National Human Development Report on Youth in Turkey was published in 2008 and today it is around 27 per cent, according to National Statistic Institute (TUIK). In a country where the young population is as high as some countries’ whole populations, this amount of increase means hundreds of thousands of young people in streets or rather at homes during these COVID times.
The good news is that the rate of idle youth -young people who are neither at work nor at school- in Turkey has declined substantially from 42 per cent in 2008 to almost 30 per cent in 2021. Most of them are in education now, thanks to efforts to ensure one university per province and thus the considerable growth of tertiary sector up to 33% in recent years (Yet, it is still below the OECD average of 44 %).
The bad news is that despite doubling its university attainment in recent years (the largest increase in the OECD), Turkey could not create new jobs as needed. Thus educated job seekers have replaced the uneducated job seekers of the previous decade. Today, more than one million university graduates are without jobs and another million is about to graduate and join this crowd, if they cannot find jobs.
Let’s meet them
Enough of numbers! Let’s meet a couple of young people and look at the situation from their point of view. But let me give one last figure first. Statistics show that at least half a million young people have already lost their hopes of finding jobs and stopped searching. So, they are not even reflected in the youth unemployment figures.
Hazal is one of them. She has graduated from a university in Southeast Turkey the previous year. When she told me the name of her university, I could not get it at first as I heard it for the first time in my life. She said that she was not surprised because wherever she had applied for a job she got a similar reaction.
She made hundreds of applications; all in vain. But when one company finally offered her a job, she could not accept it as she was supposed to work from home due to on-going pandemic. With five more siblings at home, she did not have a room of her own and her computer was not good enough to download the programmes she needed to download for the office work; she had to decline the offer even though the company suggested to pay for an upgraded internet line. She does not know what to do anymore.
Lack of quality in most of the provincial universities is seen as one of the reasons of high unemployment rates among youth. And indeed, much need to be done to increase the quality in those universities. But Atakan Avcı was graduated from Business Management Department of Dokuz Eylül University, which is one of the well-established, prestigious universities in Turkey and he is still looking for a job 8 years after his graduation.
He has been involved in civil society organisations, volunteered in youth projects, temped in restaurants and shops, attempted to have a Master’s degree but then when he found a project assistant position in a development project in Southeast Turkey, he gave up his postgraduate study (working in development field is his dream) and had a three years work experience there. Since the project finished, he is back in İzmir. After applying to all vacancies he saw in development sector for 8 months and not being able to get any offer, he decided to found his own company. It sounds fancy, no? But not.
At the age of 30 (not even included in the official youth data anymore!) he is struggling with lots of debts, multiplied with the pandemic, and still trying to realise his dreams. Even though he had realised the huge generational differences between him and the older people who are supposed to understand and fund his innovative business ideas, and despite all the heart breaking political and economic developments in the country, he says he is still determined to realise his dreams. He does not give up as he sees himself as a person with a strong background; he feels like continuing the struggle thinking of millions of young people who are less fortunate and less proactive than him.
‘Earthquake’ in store?
Youth’s problems have been deteriorated with COVID-19 lockdowns. Recruitment processes froze; young people could not join internship programmes. People who were out of work were further trapped with these lockdowns. The problem was already enormous but with the lockdown it was shocking and dramatic.
Mehmet Aslan, the Director of Youth Services Centre says that Turkey was caught off guard in the pandemic and today even though most of the businesses cannot fire their employees due to lockdown rules and sustain their business by benefiting from short-term grants, as soon as the lockdown is over in July, most of them will dismiss their employees; and as it is well known, in these cases the first ones to go are the ones with least experience, the young! Aslan believes that the number of unemployed youth will increase dramatically; an earthquake is looming.
Aslan says ‘this earthquake is not only a problem for the youth themselves, but also for the government’s youth participation, education and employment policies whereas all these policy areas are problematic anyway and they are inextricably linked with each other.’
Despite the obvious youth participation problem in Turkey, there are some areas in which Turkish youth participate in huge numbers in these dire times: Online games, Bets and Stock Exchanges. According to media reports, the number of stock exchange investors in the 20-34 age group seems to have tripled last year. 51.4 per cent of crypto-currency exchange platform Thodex investors (400.00 people in total) were in the 18-24 age range. To add insult to the injury, all the investors were scammed by the company whose CEO fled Turkey with the investors’ money and he is still on the run.
However, Okan Konyalıoğlu, Vice President of the Denizli Chamber of Industry and the General Manager of Ascon Iron and Steel Company says ‘the youth unemployment problem in Turkey is already so severe even without the perils of the pandemic.’ He says that CVs are pouring in on a daily basis from new graduates and these young people seem to have finished universities unfamiliar to anybody in the industry. The sadder thing is that there seem to be applicants who even write ‘non-smoking’ as a competency in their CVs. Konyalıoğlu says the qualifications of the graduates are so low that these mushrooming universities do not seem to be more than being instruments for the government to delay unemployment problem.
According to Mehmet Aslan, state ministries and institutions in Turkey lack the legislative infrastructure to deal with youth unemployment. He gives the National Youth Policy Paper prepared by the Turkish Ministry of Youth and Sports and approved by the Cabinet two years ago as an example: ‘Even though the paper defined what needed to be done almost entirely, it did not mention how.’
Indeed, duty falls on all ministries when it comes to tackling with youth unemployment but the Youth Ministry or any other institution does not have a coordinating role. So while the Youth Ministry’s work is squeezed into a corner of managing youth centres and camps in addition to sports activities, the youth issue -as we know it- is held in abeyance.
Under these circumstances, many young people seem to have lost their hopes for future and their confidence in Turkish system. Most do not bother to struggle even. If they can, they move to another country, if they cannot, they seem to live a life they do not want and deserve.
If people do not have a smooth transition from school to life, they are scarred forever. There is a myriad of reports, which show that individuals transitioning from school to work during a recession, like in the 80s, will fare less for the rest of their lives. They will most likely have interrupted employment and lower wages. Studies indicate that a spell of unemployment longer than a year between the ages of 16 and 23 leaves a permanent scar, reducing wages at 23 by 21 per cent, and even at age 42, by 13 per cent, compared to someone with no youth unemployment.
And it is not only the employment opportunities that are affected. While the possibility of getting married is lower, the possibility of getting divorced is higher. Even the life expectancy falls. When the current inequalities engendering from issues like poverty, education levels and health conditions are added, the unprivileged majority will surely have a rougher path.
‘They study, pass with flying colours, do everything a university student has to do, but get a big zero at the end; this is very heart-breaking for students. They feel like looser in their families, among their friends but especially in front of the mirror. It is a trauma which affect whole life’ says Meltem Kolday who is a Lecturer at Dokuz Eylül University and creator of many projects which aim to empower students and prepare them for work.
Urgent solutions needed for a better transition
A decade ago, all politicians were talking about the window of opportunity for Turkey. Indeed Turkey had a 15-year window of demographic opportunity to prepare its youth for the challenges of 2023 and beyond. In two years time, about 70% of Turkey’s population will be of working age and the working-age population will be increasing, though at a decreasing rate, until 2040.
This window is still open but according to youth expert Mehmet Aslan, to grab this opportunity, the government has to stop doing whatever it has been doing so far. Otherwise it will continue to waste it as it has been until now. Prioritization of youth and a new integrated approach with the involvement of all ministries, private sector and civil society are urgent.
Looking at the 21st century competencies identified by international organisations and countries individually, creativity, freedom, leadership, flexibility and critical thinking are vitally important, as countries need to prepare students for jobs and technologies that do not exist yet. Turkey’s large and highly centralised education system so much contradicts with these competencies.
Okan Konyalıoğlu from Denizli Industry Chamber has a practical suggestion to address the issue in short term. As the university graduates do not have qualifications required in business sector, companies could establish their own academies. Indeed similar models introduced by big companies such as Koç proved to be successful in Turkey.
Meltem Kolday from Dokuz Eylül University on the other hand tries to bring the business representatives to the classes and design mentorship programmes in cooperation with non-governmental organisations. She states that such activities could be spread across all universities and business people could even be invited to advisory boards of universities to help with related curriculum. So, strengthening connections between the universities and business world seems like a feasible shortcut.
Mehmet Aslan says that heavy curriculums and exams do not let students to have these 21st century skills much-needed for their future jobs; students do not have time to gain these skills in schools and suppression of youth who do not agree with the government policies such as the Boğaziçi University students, is not only in contradiction with the critical thinking competency but also violates basic human rights. So, a change of policy is necessary.
Turkey lags behind other OECD countries in all PISA tests from reading to academic proficiency in core skills. Only three per cent of Turkish students are high achievers in these OECD assessments. Thus, inequalities between the schools also need to be addressed. Strengthening inclusiveness so that all students can access quality and engaging education regardless their background is critical.
The digital and the ‘phigital’ revolutions have clearly shown us that those top down teachings and business approaches are redundant. Older generations, teachers, business managers and civil society leaders have a lot to learn from young people. Listening to them is not enough; young people should be part of the decision-making processes in all parts of life, as their ‘crazy’ ideas will be the game changers.
Overall, the education system and the surrounding political and economic situation in the country right now do not seem to allow students to be happy, creative and hopeful about the future. Earlier, they had a chance to be a public worker through a national written exam, but today recently introduced interview system leads them to loose their faith in the objectivity of recruitment processes.
Whoever I ask wants to go abroad. And this must be the worst thing for a country: A scarred youth who do not have any ideals and dreams in their own country.
*Aygen Aytaç is the Lead Author and the Coordinator of UNDP’s 2008 National Human Development Report on Youth in Turkey.