Of all the major forces sweeping the planet, from the rise and fall of nations to the urbanization of the world’s population, none is proving as powerful as the rise of Gen Y. With the resignation of Hosni Mubarak, the fierce debate over whether Gen Y can use its favored tech platform, Facebook, to move from smart mob to revolutionary force is over.
Egypt’s Facebook generation went from mobilization to collaboration to forcing radical government change. Sorry, Malcolm Gladwell, you’re wrong.
But not entirely. Economics played as significant role in Egypt’s revolution as social media. Probably more. Yet media coverage of Egypt’s youth revolt is absent any economic context. Without that context, the wrong conclusions will be drawn, as they are now. The political power of social media is a complex matter, involving far more than the generation of smart mobs through the sharing of information over the web.
Over the past decade, Mubarak did two things that ultimately led to his downfall. He opened up the Egyptian economy, boosting economic growth to 5-6% a year. Huge opportunities were made available, with most of them going to a small group of corporate cronies close to Mubarak’s wife and son. For the first time in decades, inequality grew sharply.
At the same time, liberalization of the economy led China, Turkey, and a number of European countries to open factories in Egypt and increase the number of manufacturing jobs sharply. New opportunities opened up for hundreds of thousands of workers.
But inflation in the past year has put pressure on the new Egyptian workers, as wages fell behind rising prices. These workers, together with the huge group of government employees, joined the students in tipping the smart mob into a revolutionary movement.
Mubarak also expanded the university population sharply. He increased the number of students who attended and the number of years they stayed. With few job prospects, many stayed well into their 30s. Without jobs, they couldn’t marry, get apartments, or start families. The jobs this generation could get were beneath their levels of education. They were, in effect, humiliating. The young saw opportunities all around them but couldn’t access them. Corruption added an additional burden. You had to buy your way into the few positions that were open. Mubarak created an educated elite able to connect on Facebook but were unable to live a decent life. The cries of “dignity” in the square were as much about economic as political dignity.
This explains the success of the Egyptian revolution. Unions and workers joined the Gen Y students, united by a common anger at economic conditions. The soaring wealth of a few infuriated those who worked for little. The recent spike in food prices around the world added fuel to the fire. Generations and classes were united in economic protest as much, if not more, than political protest.
What other country fits these conditions? China. In the past three decades, China has doubled the enrollment of its universities. And while many have found good jobs, many millions have not. After graduation, they live together in tiny flats, doing menial work to get by, hoping for that step on the ladder. They can’t afford to buy an apartment or to marry.
They see enormous wealth around them going to those with political connections. And they spend their time on Chinese social media, honing their skills at connecting and communicating.
There is working class turmoil in China as well. Every year, there are thousands of protests against low wages and confiscated land. The suicides at the Foxconn factories that assemble Apple products were not uncommon. Workers who come in from the interior do not have the right papers to stay in cities and educate their children. Their legal status is uncertain, as are their jobs.
Of course, there are big differences between Egypt and China. China is richer and faster-growing and wages are rising fast. The government knows how to manipulate social media, not just turn it off. And the army is far more likely to intervene in social protest, as Tianamen Square, showed.
And yet, we now know that Facebook-armed Gen Y can create political change under certain conditions. We know many of these conditions exist in the Middle East and Asia. As Gen Y rises, authoritarian orders should quake. But make no mistake. Economics play as as much a role as social media in turning Gen Y from organized protestor to mass movement revolutionary.
Bruce Nussbaum blogs, tweets, and writes on innovation, design thinking, and creativity. The former assistant managing editor for BusinessWeek is a Professor of Innovation and Design at Parsons The New School of Design. He is founder of the Innovation & Design online channel; founder of IN: Inside Innovation, a quarterly innovation supplement.
[Image by Iman Mosaad]