The Betrayal of Turkey’s Youth

Alexandra de Cramer

AFP Photo: Yasin Akgul

With a median age of 30, Turkey has a young population. But what does their country offer them? Not jobs, for a start. Turkey has had high youth unemployment since before the Gezi Park protests in 2013, but August 2019 marked an all-time high, with 27 percent of 15- to 34-year-olds – equivalent to some 2.8 million young people – out of work.

Furthermore, in the last 15 years the number of unemployed university graduates has increased tenfold. Currently, 26 percent of university graduates are unable to find a job. In October, a member of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), Ahmet Akin, stated in parliament that five million university graduates could not pay off their student loans.

With a stagnant job market combined with the political turmoil and economic instability of recent years, it is little wonder that Turkey’s finest brains have sought opportunities elsewhere. A recent youth report for the CHP found that more than 70 percent of young Turks said they would live abroad if they had the chance.

Data from the Turkish Statistical Institute shows that 250,000 Turks moved to a different country in 2017 and another 300,000 joined them in 2018, of which 42 percent were aged between 20 and 34. Since those who move abroad are likely to speak a second language, and have internationally recognized qualifications, transferable skills and experience, it is likely that Turkey is losing the most talented members of its workforce.

Although President Recep Tayyip Erdogan claims there are efforts underway to bring them back, the latest emigration figures would suggest those efforts are not working, if they exist at all.

According to Yalçın Karatepe, dean of the political science faculty of Ankara University, when the 27 percent of young people who are out of work are added to the 29 percent who are not enrolled in an educational institution, it means a staggering 56 percent of Turkey’s young people – those aged between 15 and 34 – are forced into idleness. “One out of two young people in Turkey is in fact doing nothing,” he said.

In an interview on CNN TURK in 2017, the journalist Serdar Kuzuloglu quoted data that showed that 30 percent of 15- to 30-year-olds earned less than 600 Turkish lira, or $104, per month, which amounts to the equivalent of 20 lira per day, or $3.50. Thirty-three percent in the same age group earned between the equivalent of $104 and $260 per month, while only 22 percent were on a monthly salary of $415 or more. “It is by no means surprising that what these young people spend most of their time doing is just walking around. It’s all they can afford,” said Kuzuloglu. “How are they expected to create a future?”

That “lost generation” now is around six million strong, but how long before technological advancements mean they are left behind for good?

The backlash that will follow the loss of the country’s intellectual capital is incalculable. Turkey’s big selling point has always been its dynamic, well-educated youth. That youth is now in crisis. In a rapidly changing world, young Turks are falling behind not only in their experience of work but in their qualifications, as the quality of Turkish higher education also raises a number of questions that are rarely addressed.

Turkey has nearly 200 universities. Not one of them is in the Times Higher Education ranking of the top 350 institutions. After the attempted coup of 2016, 6,000 academics were removed from their posts. Since all university leaders are appointed by the president, those positions are filled by those who share the same political ideology rather than by candidates chosen on merit.

A long-standing problem in the country is a lack of versatility in the job market. The driving force of the Turkish economy is still its construction industry, which employs around two million people, of which more than 1.5 million are manual workers. The fast-growing creative industries, on the other hand, tend to employ fewer people. A job for life – or even for a decent number of years – is a thing of the past.

Turkey’s position as the 27th largest export economy in the world is largely a result of its manufacturing sector. Vehicles, machinery and iron production account for more than $54.2 billion of Turkey’s $140 billion in annual exports. All are sectors that could quite easily be switched to automation, putting yet more people out of work.

The 2.5 million new jobs that the finance minister, Berat Albayrak, promised this year as part of an economic rejuvenation plan have not materialized, thanks in part to a slowed-down growth rate of 2.6 percent. Only half a million new positions were created in 2018. More than seven million students are expected to graduate over the next four years, but there is no sign of any structural reforms being put in place to enable them to enter the world of work.

Erdogan’s way of addressing the issue was to state at the beginning of this academic year that “a university degree is no guarantee to find a job. There is no such thing anywhere in the world.”

The simple fact is that by not investing in its youth, Turkey is paving the way toward a permanent state of stagnation. How many years until a young person who is without a job now is considered totally unemployable? How can those with no job – and no prospect of getting one – maintain a standard of living, let alone improve it? No job means no salary to spend on consumer goods, which slows the economy even more. The vicious circle is complete.

Turkey is failing not only the youth of today but possibly generations yet to be born. The disastrous mismanagement of the future will cost the country dearly and it is the young who will pay the heaviest price.

Alexandra de Cramer is a journalist based in Istanbul. She reported on the Arab Spring from Beirut as a Middle East correspondent for Milliyet newspaper. Her work ranges from current affairs to culture, and has been featured in Monocle, Courier Magazine, Maison Francaise and Istanbul Art News.