Like many Arab Spring countries, Tunisia is experiencing a “youth bulge,” but neither that nor the lingering effects of the European financial crisis can entirely explain Tunisia’s high rate of youth unemployment. Youth unemployment in Tunisia is the result of structural issues in its education system and its labor market, as well as an ingrained understanding of “employment” based on decades of social and political development.
While talks between Tunisia’s political parties dominate the headlines, the emotional political debates going on right now belie troubling economic conditions that could prove just as debilitating to the country’s democratic transition.
Today, the unemployment rate in Tunisia among young people with a university degree is 30 percent, more than twice the 2005 rate of 14 percent. The spike in overall unemployment (now at 17 percent) is partly explained by the larger political and economic situation. Since Tunisia’s 2011 revolution, the economy has had a hard time regaining its pre-Arab spring growth rates. Al Qaeda’s presence in North Africa has grown in the last few years. Instability in neighboring Libya has only added to anxiety over the security situation in Tunisia, a country traditionally boasting healthy tourism revenues. Finally, demand for Tunisian exports has dried up in the European Union, Tunisia’s most important trade partner. These are well-known elements of Tunisia’s post-revolution narrative.
That’s just part of the equation, though. The European market may right itself, the Tunisian government may reassert its ability to secure the country, but Tunisia will still face the nagging issue of high unemployment among its young graduates. That 30 percent unemployment rate among recent graduates isn’t a result of just cyclical unemployment—from regional and global fluctuations—but structural unemployment.
According to the most recent Global Competitiveness Index from the World Economic Forum, the Tunisian labor market has failed to efficiently marshal its young talent to create jobs and growth. A seemingly concise diagnosis, but, when unpacked, it reveals a few phenomena that have combined for the perfect storm of youth unemployment: a gap between labor supply and demand, a prohibitively rigid labor market, and lingering cultural assumptions about self-employment and entrepreneurship.