by Farzaneh (Nazy) Roudi, program director, Middle East and North Africa
Iran’s demographic momentum is in favor of those who aspire for social and political change. According to the 2006 Iranian census, one in three people in Iran is between the ages of 15 and 29. Furthermore, half the Iranian population of more than 70 million is under age 30, born around the 1979 Islamic revolution or after (see the age pyramid below). For them, the Islamic revolution is history and they want change now to address today’s needs. By their very nature, young people throughout the world aspire for a life different from and better than their parents, and in fact they are often the force behind changes in their societies.
Source: Statistical Center of Iran
The youth bulge is more evident in Iran than any other country in the world because Iran has experienced the fastest fertility decline in the last two decades or so, according to a recent United Nations report (see table A.14). According to the Iranian Ministry of Health and Medical Education, fertility declined by more than two-thirds, from 6.6 births per woman in the mid-1970s to about 2 births per woman in 2006. The most surprising and impressive decline occurred in rural areas. In one generation (a period of about 30 years), Iranian women living in rural areas moved from giving birth to 8 children to around 2 children, on average.
Iran’s Falling Fertility Rate by Area for Selected Years, 1977-2006
Births per woman
Source: Iranian Ministry of Health and Medical Education.
The rapid decline in the total fertility rate is due to simultaneous reduction at all ages: delay in childbearing by young couples, increased spacing of births by married women, and cessation of births by older women. These changes coincided with the revival of the national family planning program, delivered free through a nationwide network of primary health care facilities. Today, nearly 80 percent of married women of reproductive age use family planning and 60 percent of married women use a modern method.
Iranian women have been an accelerating force of development in the country, as manifested in their fertility behavior and desire to improve their life—55 percent of students enrolled in colleges and universities in 2005 were female. Having achieved their reproductive rights, Iranian women are now at the forefront of movements in the country that demand more rights and equality for all its citizens.
Whether Iran will manage to reap the benefits of its demographic dividend (having a large working-age population relative to the younger and older population groups who depend on the working-age population) all depends on how well its economy is equipped to create jobs for its rapidly expanding and mostly educated labor force. The youth unemployment rate (15 to 24 years old) stands at 23 percent, twice that of the total labor force. Finding a job is even more challenging for young women. One in three young Iranian women in the labor force (defined as either working or looking for a job) are unemployed. Young Iranians have been leaving the country in large numbers to find jobs in faraway places as Canada and Australia. The cost to the country for losing its human capital is estimated to be $40 billion a year.
Unemployment and high costs of living, coupled with social and political restrictions, have made it increasingly difficult for young Iranians. The sudden uprising that erupted following the disputed presidential election of June 12 is a manifestation of all the underlying frustrations. Young people’s demands for more political and social freedom and economic security cannot be ignored, not only because they are living at the dawn of 21st century and their demands are legitimate, but also because of their sheer numbers.