The bleak future of Turkey’s youth

Here in Turkey, we ought to keep in mind that our youth has not seen anything else but destructive neoliberalism and an authoritarian regime that considers freedom of opinion and expression as direct threats. Schools are, at all times, like tiny pills implanted in students’ minds; but, all through those years with the AKP, the ruling Justice and Development Party, science and free thinking have been undermined.

Pınar is an eighth grader living in Kadirli district of the Southern Province of Osmaniye. She took the High School Transition Exam (LGS) in June this year. Her parents managed a restaurant as a couple and they had sent their daughter to the preparatory courses as much as they could afford. Pınar studied for the exam for an entire year. She came across something unexpected upon getting the results of her exams. Her exam was cancelled without any reason provided. Pınar’s test paper was lost. At what stage it was lost, how it was lost, who was responsible for it; no explanation was provided. No suggestion for a solution was offered.

It was yet another example as to how young people in Turkey have little say in their own lives and are invisible. While we first spoke, she was confused and resentful. “Everybody knows which high school they will attend, except for me,” she said.

Difficult to believe but there was more to come. After a while, the family received a phone call from Bahçe Vocational and Technical School. Pınar Akbaş, whose exam was cancelled, looked as if she had opted to attend this school, some 80 kilometers away from her house. All the officials they got in touch with, could say no more than, “Oh my God. How could this happen?” Mother Sevgi Akbaş said, “Our brains stopped functioning. This kind of a thing can only happen in Turkey, I guess.” They filed a complaint; the office of the prosecutor is working on it. Pınar enrolled in a nearby school, in order to not lose a year of her life.

Pınar said she wanted to go to military school later in life as she looks up to her uncle. I told her perhaps she would change her mind while in high school. “I don’t think so,’ she retorted. She is trying to stay calm about what has happened but cannot help feeling desperate. This might affect her entire future. Most probably she will have a life where she will have to calm herself several times more. For our country and the times we are witnessing prepare us for this.

‘Three kids for each family’ are growing up  

In his book “After the Future,” Franco “Bifo” Berardi refers to the reversal of the future. There is no longer an idea of a future that is generally imagined through metaphors of advancements and existing conflicts are solved through development, knowledge, while the universe of humanity will grow and get closer to a better one. At one point, Berardi refers to Miguel Benasayag and Gérard Schmidt, who have held long therapy sessions with young people living in the suburbs of Paris. What future means to young people there is explained as “the future is no longer a promise, it is a threat.”

Here in Turkey, we ought to keep in mind that our youth has not seen anything else but destructive neoliberalism and an authoritarian regime that considers freedom of opinion and expression as direct threats. Schools are, at all times, like tiny pills implanted in students’ minds; but, all through those years with the AKP, the ruling Justice and Development Party, science and free thinking have been undermined. Systematic intervention took place into the education system to raise “religious and vindictive” generations.

The youth has experienced this and what awaits them in the future is unemployment or suboptimal jobs. It is not so easy, at this time and place to be the first privileged link of a network of relationships and benefits. The President and the AKP have advised three children for each family, now these three kids are growing and marching towards this bleak future.

Religion-oriented transformations in the education system have changed the life of the entire family of 16-year-old Azad. According to LGS (High School Entrance Exam) results, he had to attend a religious high school, the İmam (Hatip) High School. They tried everything. When the principal insisted on not transferring him, the family made a decision. They moved from the southeastern Province of Diyarbakır’s Bismil district to Istanbul. His father now works as a driver while his mother does not work. Azad now attends an “Anatolian” High School. One of his brothers has left school and now works with a relative in cell phone and spot goods sales. Other siblings are enrolled at school.

‘Dude, you go then’

Even only this move entails a radical change in a young person’s life. He was first afraid, thinking, “I have come from a place where there were people like me to a place where there are people opposing me.” Obviously, his father was more anxious than him and kept asking him if he was exposed to racism at school. Azad said they lived in a very conservative neighborhood but because there were many Kurds living there who had migrated in the 1990s, there was no racism. When I asked him what he wanted to be in the future, he said he was thinking of professions that had a future. When I asked him what these were, “law” came out. Is this an investment done with the intuition that in this country Kurds will be in need of lawyers in the future as well? He laughed. He told me an idea of his, which he hadn’t even told his family: “The more I see democracy in this place, the more I think that my generation should not live here.” He went on, “I also have far-rightist friends. They tell me, ‘Dude, you criticize everything too much. Then, maybe you better leave.’ However, most of them want to study abroad, too. The lack of perspectives of the generation Z applies to all young people, whether leftist or rightist. A young person from the AKP, believe me, has no future, just like me. Nowadays, Everybody knows that without pulling strings, you cannot do anything.”

His father, who is in his early 40s, never had a chance to go to university due to political reasons. His mother in her late 30s has never gone to school. She learned to read and write later in life. She wishes to see Azad attend university. When I asked him to imagine himself 15 or 20 years from now, Azad said he saw himself as a lawyer or prosecutor, who is able to buy a house for his mother and a car for himself. He’s pragmatic.

Azad knows his family cannot send him to preparatory courses for the university entrance exam. He worked as a musician and waiter for a while at a student café with a friend of his. He plays the guitar, he sings. He likes traditional music as well as rock. Ciwan Haco or Duman. “If the system does not work for us, perhaps I will turn to music,” he said. A music teacher visiting the café once told him he liked his music. When he pondering upon the possibility that he may not be placed in any university by the system, his tone changed. He did not want to think of it any further. For now, he feels good that he has a plan B.

First vote in 2023

In a UNICEF survey spanning EU and OECD countries, Turkey has the lowest rate, with 53 percent, among 15-year-olds who say they are satisfied with their lives. Another survey conducted by Yeditepe University amongst a 18 to 29 age group shows that 76 percent of young people want to live abroad for a better future. Azad’s secret prospect of going abroad is Beyza’s life project, who cannot get it out of her mind. “I want Oxford the most,” she said, adding, “It could also be Harvard or MIT.” She has always attended private schools and believes it does not make sense to do anything else but “rising” professions. She opted for molecular biology, taking her interests into account.

For her dream universities, a high GPA isn’t enough and one needs to be an IB student. She has to add the hours she has spent in sports and art activities as well as social aid projects. For this reason, pandemic restrictions are a source of stress for her because all lockdowns mean failure of taking Pilates and piano lessons as well as aid projects she has planned to deliver to the needy. She is concerned that the pandemic weakens her application. “Last year, the second term was not graded. The grades of the first term became grades of the full year. This was to my disadvantage because I was planning to increase them.” Beyza was fourth in her school last year; this year she wanted to be the third.

Beyza will vote for the first time in 2023. “No one around me is happy with the way the country is governed. Some of my friends support the government due to family pressure, but most of my peers have their own opinion now. We are a generation that can follow what is going on abroad, who can reach a lot of information via the Internet. For example, when we see New Zealand, we don’t like what we see in this country.” She imagines politicians will be younger after 2023; parties with more freedom in their programs will come to power.

I asked Beyza if she ever had poor friends, she said she has been in private schools since elementary school. Because of expensive annual fees, she did not have any poor schoolmates. She talked about this genuinely, like a city she has never visited, but at the same time with scientific explanation. “Right now, the rich are very rich and the poor are very poor. The gap is getting bigger and bigger. It seems to me that my generation can close the gap, because we are aware of it. If we can't, then the next generation will.”

If she can manage to attend one of these major universities abroad, she believes she will not have to worry about finding a job. She is clear on one aspect: a high pay is important. “I want to be strong in life, but I want to use that power for the better,” she said. Her dream of working for a large international pharmaceutical company is not affected from the dimension of commercialization in the sector or the ethical debates. She wants to get there and “find the vaccine and give it away to people for free.” She wants to believe that right now.

While she considers racism to be a serious problem, Beyza is not concerned that she will suffer from it abroad due to her “European features.” Talking about the extensiveness of stress in the generation of depression, the climate crisis is a source of stress for her, for instance, because it will directly affect their lives. They have shortened their showers; they recycle.

Beyza said that knowing everything going on in the world because of the Internet increased the anxiety of young people. According to her, pre-Internet life is like living in the Middle Ages. She is aware of her privileges. I have the impression that her self-confidence comes from the fact that she is part of a generation that has access to knowledge and is able to choose the right profession. The future presented to them may not be so bright at all but they feel they have the power and the privilege to change it.

‘They look down on us’

Nineteen-year-old Gürhan is the second of five siblings. He dropped out of high school. He has been working in Istanbul for two years. He worked in the A101 market chains. He said his shift lasted about 16 to 17 hours a day. He worked under the threat of being fired almost every minute. It has been a tough couple of months, he said.

“Frankly, the entire world has become complicated. Nobody knows what will happen tomorrow. There is mistrust and fear in every field, including the climate. But, you know, one does not have time to worry about the climate from all the hard work we do.”

Four friends share a house. He has worked in a warehouse where online shopping orders were prepared for a long time. During the interview, he lost his job there. The worst thing, according to him, is that “they look down on us.” It was very hard, but the only chance they had was to let them oppress them. “I had to let them oppress me as well, that’s the way the system works. Sometimes I would work 30 days straight. But if you skip two days, you’d be fired. Nobody can object. It’s torture. You come from work; sometimes you go to bed without even eating, then it’s work again. I don’t know how long this will keep on going. Although I am too young, I still think about how I will ever get married under these conditions.”

In two years, he is fed up with working life. He said he became wiser whilst working for somebody else. He wants to continue studying in the open university. Then maybe attend university. He is aware that even if he graduates, his life will not be any easier, but he has this in his mind now. “I know, more than half of those who work in factories are university graduates. They have debts. There are many unemployed graduates also. I may be unemployed with a diploma. But it is better than nothing.”

What this “system” offers him is that he has no chance but to let them oppress him. At the moment, he wants to believe that much of this is due to the fact that he dropped out of school. Gürhan wants a life where he would be, at least, not as offended.