What Matters Most to Saudi Arabia’s Youth?

What Matters Most to Saudi Arabia’s Youth?

          
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What Matters Most to Saudi Arabia’s Youth?

Helping Policy Makers Address the National Challenges
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    What characteristics distinguish Saudi youth from their peers in other countries? How satisfied are Saudi youth with their lives? What are their most important needs? These questions have become increasingly important to Saudi Arabia’s government and business leaders as they pursue initiatives to improve the lives of the kingdom’s young people.

    In a recent quantitative and qualitative study of Saudi youth, The Boston Consulting Group, working with ComRes, sought answers. We found that Saudi Arabia’s young adults lead varied lives. Still, the story of one 24-year-old man helps illustrate the plight of his age cohort: This young man, unemployed and single, lives with his family in Jeddah. He told us that he spends his days sleeping, chatting with friends online, and playing or watching soccer matches. He lacks connections that might help him get a job, he says, citing the prevalence of nepotism in hiring. He wants to find a job, get married, and buy a home and car, but he does not know how to make this happen. “If God wills this ambition, it will come true,” he told us.

    Stories like this are all too common among Saudi youth today, and their concerns warrant urgent attention. The 13 million Saudi citizens under the age of 30 represent approximately two-thirds of the population, making the kingdom much “younger” than most countries. On average among countries globally, the under-30 youth segment makes up approximately half the population, and in developed countries, that group is slightly more than one-third of the population.

    The consequences of having a large youth segment are already evident and likely to intensify. For example, approximately 1.9 million Saudis will enter the workforce over the next ten years, increasing the size of the current workforce by more than one-third. To accommodate this influx of new workers, the country will need to create more jobs in both the public and private sectors, as well as decrease its reliance on foreign workers. As the “youth bulge” moves through the life cycle, the pressure will intensify to improve the education system, create jobs that pay well, provide affordable housing, and offer effective social services.

    The challenges facing Saudi youth are reflected in data that traces their path from primary school through university and into the job market. (See Exhibit 1.) Forty-eight percent of primary-school students and 57 percent of secondary-school students do not meet basic learning-achievement levels. Sixty-three percent of university students receive degrees in subjects—such as agricultural sciences, education services, and humanities and the arts—that do not provide skills valued by private-sector employers. The absence of valued work skills among young Saudis is reflected in the fact that only 35 percent of those aged 16 to 29 have private-sector jobs. The unemployment rate for this age group is an astounding 29 percent. Furthermore, even those who have jobs struggle to find affordable housing. The average cost of a home is 8 times the average annual salary among all Saudis, compared with, for example, 3.4 times the average salary in the U.S.

    exhibit

    Recognizing the challenges reflected in such data, the Saudi government has invested heavily in efforts aimed at improving the lives of the country’s youth. Indeed, the government’s 2014 budget set a record for expenditures focused predominantly on the youth, reaching an estimated investment of 21,000 riyals (approximately $5,600) for each Saudi aged 16 to 29. These investments (excluding infrastructure projects) relate primarily to funding the education system as well as specific intervention programs in education, job creation, housing, and social welfare.

    Although the government’s initiatives are beginning to have an impact, they represent just the start of what should be an ambitious and well-coordinated multiyear effort. It is imperative that government policy makers and their partners in the business community who seek to develop nationwide initiatives understand not just the raw data but also the realities facing Saudi youth today.

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