Youth’s ‘Wall of Despair’
‘[Turkey’s] youth demand utterances that would offer solutions to their problems,’ I would have liked to say but sadly this article argues that in fact there isn’t such hope left within them. Bigger dreams and expectations in a failing economy with a failing job market in a failing system were indeed doomed for such desolation.
Feeling let down, young people have turned the comments section of a short YouTube documentary by 140 Journos, a new media producer company. “A young person who can demonstrate her/his skills and qualifications would find a job,” was a claim I wanted to respond to but the scale of disillusionment of the young people, commenting to the video, proved the effort futile.
“I am 23 years old. I am a senior at a university. I study and work since I live in a cold house, which we have to heat by a stove. When I am hungry and go to the supermarket, I lose appetite. Because I cannot afford buying anything. My mother, father and elder brother have all been working for many years now, but we still haven’t been able to buy a house or a car. We could take but a single vacation as a family. I am studying for the civil service exam [an exam held by state institutions to select civil servants to be employed in state organs], but the books are so expensive that I have to buy pirated copies. My flatmate and I have begun waking up very late to skip a meal. We have consumed over 10 kilos of burghul and 10 kilos of pasta in 5 months. We almost exclusively eat these two dishes. We can’t afford fruit. Although my situation is so dire, when I go out on the street, I feel relatively wealthy. Young people collect waste packaging from garbage at night, even when it snows. Most of them do not even have a proper coat. The other day, while entering a supermarket, a father said to the security guard, ‘Would you mind watching over my child for a minute, he will wait for me here at the door.’ The man probably could not even afford a chocolate for his kid. I see hungry people on the street all the time. I’m exhausted of feeling sad.”
This comment is just one among thousands written with frustration and despair in the comments section of 140journos’ latest documentary, Tarih Tekerrür, or Historic Recurrence for an English translation.
I want to discuss this frustration in this article. If I am not mistaken, these desperate comments came to the agenda of the social media after a Twitter account (@mortifera) posted some of them. The above comment is among those, which drew much interaction. This heart-wrenching comment sums up the current economic situation of low-income families.
We, economists, tend to reduce poverty to statistical figures in the form of growth, unemployment and inflation data, thus involuntarily normalizing the situation. Thereby we tend to normalize millions of stories like the one above. As such, it is urgent to bring such cases to the attention of the public, alongside the statistics.
The university student, who penned this comment will probably graduate in June; to face an economic panorama marked by 26.9% youth unemployment, according to TurkStat’s February 2021 figures. Among women, youth unemployment rises to a whopping 34.7%.
What makes the situation worse for the youth is that these unemployment figures are coupled with a labour force participation rate of just 38.5%. For women, the situation is even worse: Young women’s labour force participation rate is 26.6%. The data that might further darken the picture is that the employment rate is a meagre 17.4% among young women. This means that, though the female population aged between 15-24 is 5.769 million, only 1.2 million of these people are employed. While some of these young people cannot find a job despite seeking one, most of them do not even enter the job market, since they have lost hope. 4.235 million young women are thus outside the job market. Of a total of 11.826 million young people, only 3.327 million are in employment. Roughly 61 out of every 100 young people are out of work due to the failure to create jobs, and many of them view the civil service exam as their final hope.
Of course, a failing job market is not the only factor adding to their desolation. With so many universities established in recent years, more and more young people now have bigger dreams. Young people with bigger dreams inevitably experience more disappointment. In the comments section, some young people say university education does not help them find a job and some even declare, “I wish I hadn’t gone to the university.” This is yet another factor instigating disillusionment and anguish among young people in Turkey today.
Purchasing Power on a Steady Decline
A third factor is the decline in purchasing power owing to the rampant exchange rate and inflation of recent years. Individuals’ purchasing power tends to fall during crises, and the houses and cars which young people dream of are no longer attainable for them. Even if they were to get a job right away, young people can no longer dream of purchasing a house or a car one day.
The drop in purchasing power and the loss of hope go hand in hand. The young man, who wrote the above comment, remarks that although everyone in the family worked, they still cannot afford a house or a car. Even an old car like a Broadway, which can barely move around, costs 30 thousand TL (almost 3000 euros). If you were to take out a 60-month (i.e. 5-year) bank loan, the monthly instalment would be 850 TL. Given this, someone working for the minimum wage simply cannot purchase a Broadway. We are talking here about a Broadway, which has only the basic features of a car: It moves around and has a roof.
In fact, the minimum wage is not enough even for a life without a car. If purchasing a Broadway is such a challenge, buying a home must be simply unimaginable. However, in the past, dreams of prosperity in this society used to start with a house and a car. Due to the rising exchange rate and inflation, the prices of houses and cars -which we may view as the most popular items in dreams of prosperity- are mounting rapidly, even as young people’s salary (assuming they do have a job) converges to the minimum wage.
Even the simple things they want to buy by saving money become unaffordable due to successive waves of inflation. In the comments, a 21-year-old university student says, “I could not get a KYK scholarship, so I had to take out a loan. Otherwise I couldn’t meet any of my basic needs. Then my phone broke down and I began to save money to buy a new one. Yet whenever I managed to save the necessary amount, the phone prices went up. It took me 9 to 10 months to buy a phone.” Many others say that their family has no money to spare for their personal needs. A new graduate writes, “I make pencil drawings, but I cannot buy a new drawing pad when the old one is full… I can’t expect my family to give up on cooking oil so that I can engage in art.” As such, this long-lasting hike in exchange rates and inflation is a major reason shattering their dreams, even worse than in previous crises.
A fourth factor is the worsening income distribution in the country. In times of crises, income distribution deteriorates across the world. Turkey is still reeling from the 2018 crisis, and when coupled with the pandemic, this has probably led to the worst income distribution in our history. The pandemic has so suddenly divided the country into those who can maintain their income level and those who cannot, that it feels like living in two separate worlds. In fact, I think that youth working as delivery people in the services sector to make ends meet during the pandemic are harder hit by this income inequality. They must be affected worse since their current job is very tough and unrelated to their education, and they are in constant interaction with people at a much higher income level. People’s sense of justice is harmed when they see those with connections to the government land cushy jobs and display their luxurious life style on social media. These problems in income distribution must have further aggravated the disappointment among young people.
Young People Lack Hope and Prospects
A fifth factor, as clearly stated by Nesrin Nas in the 140journos documentary, is that, when things went south in the past, people used to expect that the system would change. In tough times, such a prospect created hope. Yet the youth have no such prospect today. They assume that the current system will remain in place, which worsens their despair for the future. Young people in their 20s have always seen the same political party in power. As such, they expect no change in the future and do not think that today’s problems may be overcome through social transformation, which in turn must aggravate their disappointment.
In fact, according to TurkStat’s employment figures, the lowest employment rate among young people under AKP rule was recorded in February 2009: a time when the impact of the 2008 economic crisis was at its worst. Yet we remember that, or at least I remember that, even during that shock the youth were not as desperate and disappointed as today. Back then, the shock originated from overseas and there were hopes that the government would be replaced if it mismanaged the country. That is no longer the case. Hopelessness is worse today since all these factors that take away young people’s economic prospects emerge under a pandemic, and the youth are afraid of expressing their opinions freely.
The only light of hope in young people’s comments is the possibility of going abroad somehow. According to a joint study by Yeditepe University and Mak Consultants, 76% of young people want to live abroad to have a better future (1). Indeed, the young person who wrote the above comment concludes with the following words:
“As soon as I get my diploma, I want to save money and go abroad. There is brutality and carnage outside. This system makes me weep every night until I’m out of breath. I cannot stand it anymore. Even though I may enjoy an ice cream every now and then, my guilty conscience exhausts me. I have no enthusiasm left.”
When I finished this article, there were 24,188 comments. Simply watching a video discussing their situation, young people (who are cognizant of their own situation) have become very sensitive.
Prominent journalist Mustafa Hoş once said, “The entire country is so downcast right now that if a warm, tender hand were to caress the map of Turkey, everyone would start to weep.” Likewise, young people are very gloomy, turning the comments section of a Youtube video into a wall of despair.