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Lesson: The Iranian Youth Bulge (World Savvy Monitor)

The number of youth aged 15-29 in Iran today is approximately 25 million, in a country of about 70 million.  That means over one-third of Iran’s entire population is between the ages of 15 and 29!  This phenomenon is called a “youth bulge”.  In Iran, sometimes this group of youth is called “The Generation of … Continued

Supporters of Mir Hossein Mousavi, leading reformist candidate in the upcoming Iranian presidential elections, listen to his speech at a welcoming ceremony for him, in Tabriz, Iran, Monday, May 25, 2009. Mousavi, a former Prime Minister of Iran, is one of the main challengers of the hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the June 12 presidential elections. (AP Photo/Hasan Sarbakhshian)

The number of youth aged 15-29 in Iran today is approximately 25 million, in a country of about 70 million.  That means over one-third of Iran’s entire population is between the ages of 15 and 29!  This phenomenon is called a “youth bulge”.  In Iran, sometimes this group of youth is called “The Generation of the Revolution,” because they were born between 1979 and 1994, following the Islamic Revolution.

When one generation is bigger than the one before, the younger generation often experiences high unemployment, because the country has not been able to create enough jobs to keep up with population growth.  Because there are so few job options, many of these youth have continued their education beyond college into advanced degrees, thus making this generation one of the highest educated “youth bulges” in the world.  But even after graduating with advanced degrees, there are still few jobs available for these youth.  In other countries, high unemployment has led to frustration among youth, which in turn has led to social and political unrest.  Some experts think this could happen in Iran too.

Recent events in Iran illustrate that Iran’s youth are indeed beginning to get restless.  In December 2006, shortly before elections, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was giving a speech at Amirkabir University of Technology in Tehran.  Students were shouting “Death to the dictator” and carrying signs calling him a “fascist president.”  They chanted “Forget the Holocaust, do something for us!”  The students were so disruptive that the speech had to be cut short.

The protests followed a series of cutbacks at the university that included forced retirements and demotions for more than 100 liberal professors and suppression of student political activities. Students also complained of crumbling infrastructure and dorm rooms. They had enjoyed far more relaxed rules under the previous president, Khatemi, and they want these freedoms back.

The question is, will these sorts of youth protests stay minor, or will they grow into a movement to push for significant change and reform in contemporary Iran?

A History of Student Movements  

In Iran, there is a history of students and young adults forming strong movements.  In 1979, youth made up a critical faction of the movement to bring down the Shah, Iran’s existing ruler.  Their activism benefited the religious clerics, who ultimately seized power.  Students were the ones who took over the US Embassy in Tehran in 1979 and held US citizens hostage, a move that was only afterwards embraced by Khomeini and others active in the Revolution.  Khomeini recognized the power of universities to serve a similar function as mosques in organizing community support for the Revolution.  

In spite of the students’ support, however, after the Revolution, Iran’s universities were closed for three years so that new curriculum written for an Islamic Republic could be put in place and safeguards created to prevent student protest in the future.  All publications, course materials, associations, and activities became subject to monitoring and censorship.  Campus Revolutionary Guard units recruited students to promote hard line views, rally around conservative leaders, and counter any reformist protests.  Strict Islamic cultural mores were enforced among student populations – classes are segregated by gender, women must wear cover their hair and most of their skin, wearing either a chador or hajib.

Attempts to Control the Youth Population

As the Generation of the Revolution has aged into young adulthood, the Islamic Republic has maintained its policies designed to prevent any anti-regime activism on college campuses and in society at large.

Some members of this generation are among the regime’s most stalwart supporters, embracing a militant view of Islam that is anti-Western.

Others chafe under the restrictive society, and are beginning to test government bans on political activism and strict cultural mores.  They watch Western television programs from illegal satellite dishes and hope to migrate to Western countries in search of jobs and opportunities.  Young women in Iran still wear the veil, but experiment with shorter veils, decorated chadors or other accessories.       

Despite their discontent and experimentation with the rules, most youth seem to be making their way in the system without challenging it head on.  

In 2003, an increase in the price of university tuition produced pockets of protest that quickly turned violent when the regime unleashed counter-demonstrations.  Protestors appealed to the United Nations for assistance, but the regime immediately quashed the protests.  For the next three years, there were few protests, and experts were worried that youth had become apathetic.

But that seems to be changing since December 2006.  Although many student leaders have gone into hiding, Iranians turned out in large numbers for local elections to support opposition candidates to those put forward by Ahmadinejad’s regime.  In June 2009, another presidential election will be held, with current President Ahmadinejad running again for office against several opponents, including popular former President Mohammad Khatami.  U.S. foreign policy experts are taking note and watching what youth involvement will be in this election.  

Because the number of youth in Iran is so large and so many of them are highly educated, this Iranian “boomer” generation represents a potential changing of the guard.  This could be especially true as the leaders of the Islamic Revolution begin to age out of power.  The future of Iran is literally in the hands of today’s youth generation.

Article courtesy of World Savvy Global Educators Program

Discussion Questions

  1. Explain what the term “youth bulge” means.
  2. How many youth are in Iran today?  How many people are in Iran overall?
  3. What are some of the impacts of this youth bulge?
  4. What roles have students played in Iran’s recent history?
  5. Make predictions about how you think Iran’s youth will impact the future of Iran.
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