Tunisia, Egypt and the Coming Generational Explosion

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A combo of pictures shows Egyptian demonstrators tearing a huge portrait of President Hosni Mubarak during a protest (Getty Images)

A guest post from business author Don Tapscott:

Davos: Having just done a CNBC interview I was reminded of the interplay between the global media and the discussions among leaders at Davos. News reporters in the tents on the roof of the Congress center naturally want opinions on events happening today and how to relate those to the deliberations taking place in the building below.

CNBC wanted to lead with the Egypt story, and both upstairs and downstairs the developments in Tunisia and now the protests in the streets of Egypt have many concerned about the Mideast and beyond.

And rightly so. The world is a powder keg as a demographic tidal wave of young people enter a jobless workforce and societies that need deep political and social reform.

To me 2011 is playing out in hyper speed.  In my year-end forecast for 2011, I argued that “Worldwide generational conflict will grow.  Around the planet young adults are asserting themselves in the workplace and in political arenas.  Protests against entrenched governments will increase in frequency and severity.”

I have no satisfaction about how quickly this forecast is coming true.  A new youth radicalization is underway for three inter-related reasons.

First, there is a massive generation of young people coming of age. Born between 1977 and 1997, the children of the baby boom in North America outnumber their parents. The echo is larger than the boom itself. In South America the demographic bulge is huge, and even bigger in Africa, the Mideast and Asia. A majority of people in the world are under the age of 30 and a whopping 27% under the age of 15.

Second, this generation is the first to grow up digital. They have been bathed in bits; computers, the internet, and interactive technologies are a fundamental part of the experience of youth. To them, technology is like the air. I am a digital immigrant, while my children are digital natives.  When I was growing up I was the passive recipient of broadcast television. When young people today are at a computer, they are interacting, searching, authenticating, remembering, collaborating, composing their thoughts, and organizing information. They interact with the media and know how to inform themselves and use technology to get things done.

Third, as they become adults, they are entering a world that is broken.  Youth unemployment is high around the world. In Spain more than 40 percent of young people are without work.  In France the rate is over 20 percent. Many failing institutions are in need of reform.  Hosni Mubarak has been President of Egypt for almost 30 years, and most people think he wants his son to succeed him.  In Tunisia, Ben Ali assumed the presidency through a bloodless coup in 1987. Driven out of power by a citizen revolt, he and his family were forced to flee the country.  Throughout the Mideast there are undemocratic regimes with few human rights.  Women want to be part of the work force but in many countries are denied full opportunities to do so.

Put these three factors together and there is a perfect storm brewing. During the 1960s there was a generation gap where young people and their parents had different attitudes towards many things, from civil rights and women’s role in society to war. The youth radicalization of the time brought about significant changes in society, among them the end of the war in Vietnam.

But this time is different. Today a huge, deeply frustrated generation has at their fingertips the most powerful tool ever for finding out what’s going on, informing others and organizing collective responses.  The leaders of Iran, Tunisia, Egypt , Syria, Saudi Arabia or even China can take steps to prevent them from communicating with new media, but ultimately this will not work.

Many thought the government of Iran had succeeded. But the youth radicalization emerging across the Mideast is evidence that the Iranian revolution is just beginning.  Iran has the highest proportion of teens and twenty-something’s of any country in the world.  Add access to secular information and it’s clear that this will become a challenge to the theocracy. And in the age of hackers, Wikileaks and growing anti-government activists, young people everywhere will find workarounds to state-imposed censorship or restrictions on their use of new media.

While overall a growing movement for jobs and social and political reform is positive, it has many here at Davos worried.  In one session a famous academic argued “Sure it’s positive that a new generation wants reform but we need to consider the security consequences of a deepening wave of protests in the Mideast.”

Another said “We’re all very focused on financial risks in the world but there is a growing social risk and dire consequences of not addressing social problems.”  He argued convincingly that the youth radicalization was not about the poor rising up. “These youth are educated people.  They have high expectations that are conflicting with reality.”

The West is not immune either as the youth movement is becoming a global one.  There have been demonstrations in many European countries and with over 20 percent youth unemployment in the United States it’s only a matter of time.  In Western democracies, youth voting is down everywhere, but it’s not because young people don’t care or have no values.  Youth volunteering has been growing for a decade in high school and university in the US and many countries.  But increasingly young people do not believe that their governments can or are willing to bring about economic, social and political reform.  Increasingly they are looking to various forms of mass action to bring about change.  Buckle up.

Don Tapscott (@dtapscott on Twitter) recently co-authored “Macrowikinomics: Rebooting Business and the World.”