Interview with Jörg GERTEL : Coping with uncertainty
Question 1: Your work (co-authored with R. Hexel) and titled "Coping with Uncertainty: Youth in the Middle East and North Africa, ( in arabic مأزق الشباب في الشرق الأوسط وشمال أفريقيا Beirut, Dar al-Saqi, 2019) presents the results of a quatitative study conducted on a large scale in 2016 and addressing the situation of youth in the region (Morocco, Tunisia, Bahrain, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, and Yemen) in a Post-Arab Spring context, what are the main lessons you have retained from the study?
Our study has many insights and I should like to give you three examples, here.
Economy: It is clear from our analysis that young people in the MENA region, like many young people in the wider Mediterranean region, are suffering from the consequences of the neoliberal economic system, which has resulted in the dismantling of social welfare systems and in a decrease in long-term employment opportunities for new entrants into the job market (Gertel 2019).Two processes are crucial here: first, over the last three decades secure public jobs, often tied to the state, have largely disappeared in the wake of the implementation of structural adjustment measures. Young people just starting their own families have been particularly affected and they are now experiencing insecurity, dependency, and resignation in terms of the security of their livelihoods and labour market conditions. Second, education is no longer a guarantor of social mobility. On the contrary, expensive private educations can and does contribute to family indebtedness. The loss of secure jobs in the public sector is compounded by the loss of public assistance, which is all the more dramatic because alternative social security systems are seldom available. Given that the younger generations largely depend on their family and kin networks, we consider them to be a “contained youth” (Gertel 2017). Young adults can hardly liberate themselves from familial ties in order to become emotionally and financially independent. This increases the potential for individual frustration and also forms new collective moralities. Being ‘contained’ means more than mere ‘waiting’ (cf. the so-called waithood debate, Singerman 2008); this situation prevents them from developing their personalities. Instead, they have to accommodate values that are not always attuned to the requirements of a globalizing world.This seems to be all the more problematic now as the younger segments of youth today live in a situation of “borrowed security” (Gertel 2018b). This means that as long as they are part of their families of origin, they might still consider their economic situation as ‘secure,’ as is the case in Morocco (see below). But the persistence of uncertainty in their everyday lives unfolds once they decide to start their own family and to shoulder greater responsibilities. Manifold forms of insecurity have expanded dramatically during the last decades, adversely affecting the individual, the family, and the community in many aspects. Recently, in 2020, in particular with the outbreak of the Corona Pandemic, past routines and strategies no longer guarantee success, and even States in the MENA region can barely offer adequate jobs or social security to young adults and to their families. An entire generation is thus moving inexorably into social marginalization, albeit in a slow and imperceptible manner.
Mobility: Contrary to the images conveyed by mainstream media, only a few young people in North Africa and the Middle East are really determined to emigrate. Asked about their personal situations, a large majority (58%) is resolved to stay at home (‘I am definitely not emigrating’); conversely, only a minority (7%) is ‘sure’ to emigrate (Gertel & Wagner 2018, 207). The figure belies the widespread assumption held by many to the effect that almost every young person is keen on and ready to move on to another country. Still, about one third of those surveyed is undecided; they either ‘sometimes toyed with the idea’ (13%) or ‘would really like to emigrate’ (22%). Bearing in mind the multiple crises in the region, this is a remarkably small percentage. And, of course, not everybody intends to migrate to Europe, though mobility patterns are still shaped by historical and linguistic ties with certain European countries. For one, labour-motivated migration reveals that the predominant spatial movements occur between different Arab states. The willingness to emigrate ranks highest among flexible individuals with migration experiences prevalent within their families and their social networks. However, mobility aspirations cannot be reduced to finding work abroad only. Young people are equally interested in travelling in pursuit of leisure or for the purpose of broadening their cultural horizons. Moreover, mobility attitudes are also gendered and dependent on marital status, personal predisposition to change, social class, and social networks. As far as Moroccans are concerned, two characteristics are crucial: their personal flexibility is way above average in relation to their readiness to marry somebody from a different faith or somebody older than they are. Moreover, young Moroccans constitute the largest group among the countries with respondents (32%) that are ready ‘to leave the family even if you have to risk your own life in order to change your current situation’. However, this does not translate into a different emigration pattern in Morocco: Almost two thirds (63%) are determined stay at home, while only a tiny minority (3%) is sure about emigrating. Correspondingly – and alongside the overall findings, about a third (34%) is undecided. At any rate, youngsters consider any mobility-related decision to be a hard decision to take. Many are deeply attached to their families and home countries, and are, therefore, far from considering migration ‘an easy way out’. What is conspicuous, however, is young people’s awareness of the gap between movement in space and upward social mobility. While the desire to find employment or to pursue an education continues to motivate some to go abroad, at a time of instant communication they seem to be all too aware of the fact that migration does not necessarily come with the promise of a better life anymore. Many young people have a realistic understanding of the pros and cons of going abroad, including cultural and employmentrelated hurdles which impede integration elsewhere. They no longer perceive European welfare states as the “Promised Land.” By contrast, flight and asylum—which are often the consequences of armed conflicts—have sadly become part of the lot of many young Arabs. Needless to say, the flipside of forced displacement is forced immobility.
Religion: Religion is a source of hope and optimism. Young people in the region consider themselves indeed to be more religious-minded than before the Arab Spring events. But contrary to popular beliefs, religiosity is increasingly related to higher education and better economic status. The more educated and well off a young person is, the more likely s/he is to be religious. However, religion is considered “a private matter and nobody should interfere with it.” Religion may thus be said to be more secular; it is “lived and experienced individually and seems to be no longer related to larger social utopias.” And this is indicative of a decline in political religiosity and an advance in social religiosity (Ouaissa 2018, 96). Being religious, however, is not synonymous of being politically mobilized. On the contrary, young people who are politically mobilized tend to be less religious than the rest of the youth population (Sika and Werenfels 2018).
Question 2: Given the diversity of contexts in these countries, what definition of youth have you adopted in your study and how do you account for it?
As there is no such category we may call “the” youth, we have not adopted a single definition. In a bid to capture a larger spectrum of youth groups, we have opted for a wider age segment and included people aged between 16 and 30 years, for they represent different stages of development, as well as transitions from childhood to adulthood. Additionally, this broad category reflects different living situations, including marital and occupational status. Key passages include, for example, transitioning from education and training to professional life, establishing a partnership or marriage, moving out of the parental home, and starting a family and having children. We also asked the interviewees whether they consider themselves as being part of the youth group or adults. In sum, young people at different phases of life and varying degrees of responsibility are covered in our study. On the one hand, there is a group of young people who still live with their parents, and on the other, there is a group of young adults who live with their partners. The latter are mostly married and in some cases have children of their own. Those living with their parents see themselves primarily as youth (95%), but this also applies to those with their own households (83%) (Gertel 2018b).
Question 3: Are there differences (or, marked trends) between young people in Morocco and other countries?
In general terms, and according to the (contested) official United Nations’ ranking, for example, Morocco holds a position at the lower end of the “medium” Human Development Index category. Compared with the countries represented in our study, Morocco is placed in between Egypt and Yemen. But how does this relate to the situation of young people in Morocco? Asked about the economic situation of their families almost 90% of young people in Morocco perceive it as ‘very good’ or ‘fairly good’. This is a surprising statement, especially if we view in light of the official UNDP ranking and the occupational insecurity plaguing the previous generation of parents. Only about one quarter of fathers, the main income earners within most families, actually have jobs which are deemed ‘secure’, while another one-fifth is selfemployed or engaged in occupations where some qualifications are needed, but the monthly income is rather unstable and safety-nets are seldom in existence. The working conditions of the parental generation are made even more precarious by another third of fathers who are self-employed but in avowedly very insecure conditions—active in the service sector, usually as agricultural workers or as day labourers. This actually squares with the social stratification in Morocco. The societal segments, which are made up of poor people belonging to the lower middle-class, are comparatively large–-only in Yemen are they arguably larger (Gertel 2018, 173). This grim picture is further confirmed when different sorts of data are combined. Relating information about (a) young people’s self-assessment of their personal security in all of its everyday aspects (comprising school/job, family, economic situation, political transformation, and future developments) with (b) more objective indicators (such as fathers’ educational status, property ownership, income assessment, etc.), and via the construction of a strata index we were able to identify (c) vulnerable and resilient groups among young people. From this perspective Moroccan youth confirm the first image: they are rather positioned at the lower end of human security: about one third (34%) of young Moroccans should be considered as vulnerable and only a smaller group (12%) could be described as being resilient. Again, only war-torn Yemen shows a higher incidence of vulnerability (Gertel 2018, 41).
However, the picture is more complex. With regard to the anxieties about their own future, Moroccan youth are less apprehensive than their peers in other countries, particularly in what concerns the prospects of becoming poor or being compelled to leave their country for political reasons. Concerning the different values and achievements in life Moroccan youth groups are highly diversified, revealing the most pluralistic picture among the countries studied. Generally speaking, the largest group in the whole sample has been framed as “decent but inflexible” –but in Morocco, after Bahrain, this group is comparatively small, while two other groups are much more frequent, namely those who are “self- absorbed and looking for success” and the ones who are “individualised and flexible” (cf. Gertel & Kreuer 2018). The first group scores low on community values but high on success-related prospects (e.g. doing what others are doing; having power and exerting influence; being politically active; and pursuing their own agenda). An above-average number of young people in this group are jobless and do not have control over an independent budget. They consider themselves to be part of the lower-middle class and are more likely to live alone than other young people. They spend their leisure time in cafés or youth clubs more frequently than their peers in similar age-groups. Politically, they often favour a combined socialist-Islamic system. For the latter group, success-related values are important, while decency has only a minor role, as far as they are concerned. There are more men than women in this group, and they are overwhelmingly city dwellers. More often than not, they are not part of a set social group or clique. Besides, they do not think that basic human rights are important, and perceive themselves as being less religious than those in the other groupings. Nevertheless, they ranked ‘believing in God’ the highest. They are more frequently involved in civil-society projects than the average respondents and are flexible in terms of life planning.
In 2016, politics –and party politics, more particularly– was not highly esteemed among young people in the MENA region. However, young people in Morocco were fairly satisfied with the role played by the state as compared to other countries. They most frequently-made claim was that the role of the state in daily life should remain as it is (44%) or even that the state should play a larger role in daily life (53%) (cf. Albert & Hegasy 2018, 251). They prefer a political system with a strong man governing the country (27%). or alternatively, opt for a democratic system (23%). A considerable group (16%) was undecided, however, not knowing which political system should actually be privileged (ibid, 245). Asked about the 2011 events the majority in Morocco labelled them “Arab Spring” and only about one third (36%) of young people in Morocco disagreed with the statement that: “With the events, we are better off today than we previously were.” Compared with the other countries in the region, this stood out as the most positive judgment about the 2011 Arab Revolutions.
Question 4: Youth is highly diverse, what categories/ profiles has your study uncovered? And are there specificities in this regard in Morocco?
Apart from the various transition phases from childhood to adulthood –along with the related categories of adolescence– and the application of conventional categories, such as gender, age, occupational status, class and nationality, we identified different strata and several value groups, but also vulnerable segments and groups with different social flexibilities. We likewise developed indices about political intention and political action. All of this, of course, contributes to the development of an empirically-nuanced picture about the social realities prevalent in different countries, as some of the specificities pertaining to Morocco presented above have shown.
Question 5: Have you detected any inter-generational breaks between these youth and their elders, and if so, in what areas, in particular?
At first glance, our survey data do not suggest intergenerational conflicts or resentments among the younger generation towards the older generation. On the contrary, in 2016 most young people had a positive outlook on the current state and future developments of intergenerational relations in their immediate environment and in the larger society. Having said this, interviewees, did see intergenerational conflicts arising quite frequently beyond the realm of their own family, i.e. in their neighbourhood or the broader society. Regarding the economic dimension of intergenerational relations, around one-third of the respondents felt that the ‘older generation should reduce their demands in favour of the younger generation,’ whereas almost the same percentage thought that the ‘wealth was quite equitably distributed among the younger and older generations,’ and 16% even demanded that the younger generation ‘reduce their requirements in favour of the older generation’. However, a closer look into the findings reveals a crucial bifurcation between generations which becomes all the more obvious when it comes to the question of labour and employment. We know that uninterrupted working biographies, which are steady all the way from the beginning of a professional life up to its conclusion, are clearly on the wane, even in rural areas across the MENA region. Today, even peasants and nomads are increasingly compelled to change their professional activities, to acquire new skills, and to reorient themselves (Gertel and Breuer 2012). Unstable conditions to young (urban) people and their professions, in an even more pressing manner. Changing employment structures, which actually bespeak the sequence of social transformations and disruptions, are also readily visible in empirical findings. To be sure, today’s Arab youth, who are better formally-educated than their parents, are presumably better prepared to enter a different labour market, and are, in principle, supposed to spawn innovations in newly emerging economic and social sectors. However, given the lack of opportunities and the dearth of specialized knowledge, they are regularly employed below their qualifications—a situation which obviously leads to frustration, to dependency on employers and parents, and often to protest and resistance. How does this situation then compare with parental occupational patterns, especially in terms of such considerations as security of tenure? Focusing on the employment of young people, it is, first of all, apparent that civil servants and employees no longer constitute the backbone of the national labour force, as was the case with their the parental generation. Therefore, the economicallysecure young adults group has shrunk significantly, comparatively to their parents’ generation –which is evident when both genders are considered together, but also when the male labour force is examined. A generational rupture in terms of employment structure has thus become noticeable. In the same vein, the second most dramatic movement is found among the most vulnerable group of workers. Bar agricultural activities, this segment has grown considerably. The picture for male workers is stark: today, upwards of 40 percent of young working men are active in jobs such as day-labourers or employees in the service sector, which is characterized by interrupted labour activities, as well as by unstable and low income—the hallmarks of insecurity and vulnerability. The increasing instability plaguing working conditions and the increasing precariousness amidst an ever better-educated generation is striking. This pattern of expanding uncertainty reflects the reorganisation of working society further exacerbated by the consequences of structural adjustment programmes, including the reduction of social protection schemes and the privatisation of State-owned companies which have resulted in massive layoffs since the 1980s. When the parental generation entered the labour market in the same decade, secure employment was still fairly accessible. Since then, with the dismantling of the former Arab welfare states, labour conditions have severely deteriorated. Cross-generational shifts in professional activities –or, switches between occupational fields– constitute a crucial indicator of social development. Generally speaking, young people have descended into more insecure labour conditions. Still, these findings are indicative of social mobility.
Looking at individual countries, the highest proportions of those who are falling back are found in Bahrain and Egypt, while, generally, in all the other countries, about one-third of young workers are moving into more insecure positions. The highest upward mobility between generations is actually seen in Lebanon, followed by Morocco, Palestine, and Tunisia. By and large, social mobility depends on social strata: the higher the social stratum, the higher the percentage of those who are descending. A generational shift within the labour structure thus affects the higher social strata. It is here that the largest losses in terms of secure positions actually occur. Over the last generation, two mechanisms have simultaneously been at work: systematic abolition of the welfare state combined with the failing promise of upward social mobility via education.
Question 6: In addition to the questionnaire, you also made use of interviews with young people from these countries. What sort of nuances do qualitative interviews bring to our understanding of the daily lives of these young people?
Methodologically speaking, we tried to combine statistical insights (i.e. resulting from numerical relations systems generated via standardized interviews) with text-based insights (i.e. resulting from social relation systems produced via in-depth interviews). This allows us to contrast structural findings about youth (namely insights that cannot be generated via participant observation) with contextual knowledge of individual cases. We thus made use of in-depth interviews for the purpose of contextual illustration, in order to give mere structural findings a human dimension, and not so much as a generic source for developing typologies that inform a specific theory. The quotes we used in the book thus have two main functions: illustrating typical situations and, where necessary, widening the empirical scope in order to capture nuances, contradictions and ambivalences pertaining to specific developments.
Question 7: In your research you have thought about the concepts of insecurity and uncertainly for a long time. How do you articulate these concepts theoretically, notably in relation to youth? And what kind of links do you establish between the realities of these young people as they actually live them in the countries covered by the study?
Uncertainty and insecurity are part of everyday life. While uncertainty relates to the future and to our systems of beliefs and knowledge, insecurity concerns the present and our ability to act. Correspondingly, uncertainty refers to what the future may hold in store, most of which, if not all, is unknown to us. The future cannot truly be foreseen. Individual and societal actions will always entail uncertainties. Human action constantly generates unintended consequences, whereas reflexivity, the permanent coupling of action with the current state of knowledge, remains limited. Hence, we can predict, only to a certain extent, how matters will unfold. Nevertheless, individuals, as well as societies, are continually trying to hedge against uncertainty, orienting everyday life towards the future in attempt to plan it. The tactics and strategies used in that regard largely depend on access to resources, which is negotiated within society. In our empirical study, we have distinguished among three arenas of human action: the individual, the household, and the polity/community levels. Here, tactics and strategies are developed and materialise to generate various forms of securities within the realm of uncertainties. These arenas of action can often only be analytically delineated and separated from each other, while in everyday life, they intersect and overlap and assume different meanings to particular individuals and groups. Young people are particularly affected by uncertainty: they are required to emancipate themselves from sheltered family relationships so as to be able to meet the challenges of a globalised world. Adolescence represents a phase in life when ties to parents and the immediate socialisation context are gradually loosened. New roles are tried out, while personality and identity are formed. This is a process beset by personal insecurities and uncertainties, which are further compounded by general social constraints. In the MENA region, such constraints have recently been exacerbated by political instability, economic problems, and violent developments. The analytical focus of our study is therefore on the question of how securities are produced and for whom the strategies designed to address uncertainties are most successful.
Question 8: Do young people in these countries find their “ways” of pulling through? And if so, by means of which “logic of resilience” do they cope with their conditions?
Young people, not being a homogenous group, are confronted to various degrees of exposure and vulnerability. Not completely determined --thought largely dependent on their access to resources—different strategies to cope with and mitigate insecurities are thus adopted by different groups. One way of understanding these coping strategies consists in analysing social networks. Indeed, access to the latter determines the possibility of social integration, the opportunity to locate oneself within society, and the ability to access a social safety net. Establishing and maintaining social networks, however, require time and commitment, as these networks are to, a certain degree, subject to the principle of reciprocity. Put another way, exchanges and transactions, including information, are based on mutuality. In this context, the calculation of values could span over long periods of time. How are young people integrated into online and offline networks? Overall, a good 60 percent are part of an established group of friends, or a clique, i.e. a circle of friends of the same age. The frequency of such networking, however, is unequally distributed. Among the most vulnerable, not even half belong to a clique, while among the more secure groups two-thirds of respondents have a circle of friends. This begs the question: whom do young people typically turn to if they experience minor difficulties or major predicaments, such as when they need money, fall ill, have personal problems, or are looking for jobs? The answers to this question underscore the relative importance of social networks and the strategic options available to one. The most striking finding is that in all four instances cited, the family is by far the most frequent choice. In case of illness and in money-related matters, more than three-quarters of young people turn to their families. When it comes to personal problems and to job-searches, the family still ranks number one for most respondents, but friends and one’s partners stand out as important in these instances. The most important differences between the groups relate to the need for money. About 70% in the most insecure group and about 88% in the more secure group would turn to their parents for help. In contrast, in the case of personal problems, there are almost no differences between the groups when it comes to choosing whom they would turn to for help. The field appears broadly homogenous here. A considerable number of people, however, note that they have no one to turn to if they run into personal difficulties. This applies particularly to the search for work, but also to personal problems and moneyrelated issues. Today, with the Corona-driven communal experiences in digital communication, it is important to understand the scope and impacts of such endeavours as digital learning, the creation of self-help initiatives, the viability of crowd-funding measures and the peculiarities of digital labour platforms.
Question 9: You are considering conducting the study again and expanding the sample to include 10,000. What motivates this choice? Do you then hypothesize that a decade after 2011, major changes have actually taken place in the area?
As we intend to carry out a similar study in 2021, ten years after the Arab Spring (2011) and five years after our last study (2016), we will be able to understand medium-term developments both on a national and a crossnational level. Besides, inasmuch as our approach is based on face-to-face interviews in the different countries, we are also able to include those young people who would normally be excluded from online samples because they do not have access to Internet or simply lack the time or the skills necessary to participate. Conceptually, the larger part of the questionnaire will repeat key questions – in order to allow for a comparison with our earlier findings, while a smaller part will be dedicated to new topics that will, for example, focus on the impact of digitalization, labour market transformations, and the consequences of the Corona-virus crisis. We, therefore, hope to provide not only the academia and planning institutions, but foremost the young people in the MENA region with new inside knowledge about the situation of youth in 2021, offering contextual information about the multitude of youth groups and their respective milieus in within and beyond national boundaries, as well as their trajectories.
Now as to the question of whether we have observed any structural changes within the MENA countries over the last ten years, the answer is “Yes and no!” No – or rather no, if the positioning of the MENA region within the world economy is addressed –here, no structural changes are visible though developments have been highly dynamic. During the last three decades, neo-liberal transformations have not only dismantled the Arab welfare states and further reduced social protection mechanisms, as a result of radical market opening and massive state austerity measures, they have also contributed to widespread insecurities in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. New uncertainties gained in intensity with regime changes, which were accompanied by escalating violence and further economic decline. A situation of precariousness now pervades all social classes. But this can in no way be linked exclusively to poverty. Nor can it simply be attributed to some internal inadequacy or national inefficiency. On the contrary, investments in such areas as energy, tourism, and land-development, for example, are increasingly linked to transnational corporations and international financial markets; the circulation of labour is globally articulated and highly mobile, while commodity prices—as is the case with cereals, for example—are no longer decided on within national borders, but, indeed by commodity futures exchanges located in New York and London. In view of these developments and the rise of social and economic inequalities –which are compounded by the challenges of global environmental degradation, the expansion of technoliberal turbo-capitalism, and the globalization of health threats—the general positioning of the wider Mediterranean region and its inhabitants has not changed and morphed into a better position over the last ten years. Nor did it result in an extended scope of action in favour of national governments. On the contrary, a bundle of structural changes have occurred since the Arab Spring. Turbulences such as war, armed conflicts, revolutions, and civil strife have developed, undermining social security even further –threatening the foundations of societal solidarities. The middle classes –which have, for decades, been the backbone of social stability—are now breaking into segments suffering from varying degrees of insecurity and precariousness; they are indeed crumbling down (Gertel & Ouaissa 2018). The young generation is particularly hit by the dynamics of social and economic polarisation, and is largely embedded into two ambivalent processes: first, political mobilisation, which tends to be highest among those groups whose families have experienced downward social mobility. But even activists are often unaware of the complexity of reasons underlying their disenfranchisement, which is why they often only address their national government. Second, this generation is losing the certainty shored up by social identity and personal perspectives, alongside positions conferred by class. When societal structures collapse it is no longer easy to identify with a state –and least of all with politics. All that remains is trust in the family and personal (religious) faith. Subsequently, the preferences shown by youth for specific political systems reflect these experiences.
Question 10: You have undertaken several field researches and trainings (on behalf of your students) in Morocco, together with Moroccan colleagues? What is your assessment of the research-training dynamics driving young researchers?
It has always been a privilege to be able to visit Morocco and to cooperatively learn from the people –both from those who approach us and talk to us in cities and in the countryside, alike, and from Moroccan scholars, colleagues and friends. And it has been even a greater privilege to share these outstanding experiences with young Moroccans and Germans during the various enriching encounters made in the process of doing fieldwork work, conducting workshops and attending conferences. These field visits have become genuine co-learning projects. Being together –on the occasion of shared meals, discussions and new experiences– for a few weeks, we have not only learned to communicate with each other (using different languages such as Arabic, French, Tachelhayt, English or German) but we have also learned how to express ourselves and frame our thoughts in novel categories. Moroccan-German student and young graduate networks have developed over the years, and mutual private and professional visits in both countries have followed suit. And we now look to formalize these experiences by establishing new exchange programs between our joint universities and institutions. This will be the next step in this outstanding relationship.