The Baby Boomers of Iran

There are few generations in American history more romanticized than our famous “Baby Boomers”.  The flush of postwar security, prosperity, and optimism provided the perfect backdrop for the creation of one of the largest population bulges in our history. This sharp increase in fertility led to an unprecedentedly large working-age labor force, and this was a leading cause of the United States’ continued rise and economic development; it’s safe to say that many modern American innovations would not have been possible without our “boomers” and the environment that created them.

A similar bulge was born about 25 years ago in Iran. Today, the Persian country boasts one of the most youthful populations on earth. Not the very youngest, of course- extremely youthful populations are usually indicative of low life expectancies and high infant mortality rates. This is more common to the third world, like Sub-Saharan Africa. Iran is different, however, because their population (over 60% of whom are under the age of 30) is well-educated, well-nourished, and enjoys a growing economy despite US sanctions. Iran’s middle-eastern neighbors, in fact, have similarly proportioned population bumps; Jordan and Egypt for example have 30% and 25%, respectively, of their populations under the age of 30, albeit with less educational opportunity and economic growth. Check the figures for other Middle Eastern countries and you’ll find that the trend is regional. The “Baby Boomers” of the Middle East are now reaching maturity, and their voices are going to be the ones that catalyze the politics of the region.

The reasons for Iran’s bulge are many, but what sets them apart in some ways from the causes for neighboring growth spurts was the imperative given by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini following his ascension to power. The Islamic Revolution of 1979, which created the power vacuum Khomeini quickly filled upon his return from exile in France, was centered on a return to traditional Islamic values and lifestyle. Western ideas and culture were to be expelled, both symbolically and literally (as the storming of the US embassy of Tehran illustrated), and the political influence of western powers was to be cut off (the previous regime of Shah Pahlavi had been ardently pro-western and secular). Khomeini, a cleric himself, invited the alienated clergy of Iran back into the workings of the government, handing them extensive influence through his new theocratic constitution. Being the traditionalist that he was, he also called for the people of Iran to live their lives as traditional Islamist value dictated.

Chief among the desire for a “return to values” was Khomeini’s insistence that one tradition in particular be restored- the idea of the pious man with as many children he could produce. Khomeini urged his citizens to procreate as fast as they could, and the results were so successful that by the 1990s it was evident that contraception should become a national priority; the population of Iran had almost doubled, from 36 million in 1978 to 64 million by 2011. The economy could not possibly have supported any more young Iranians, despite the fact that they could have been a boon to the work force. But Khomeini’s objectives were neither economic nor spiritual in reality; they were political. He envisioned, for future generations, and “Army of Islam”, massive in size and loyal to Islamist ideals in belief. Khomeini himself saw firsthand how useful student and youth movements could be as political forces in his country; all too recent were the events of 1979, where most of the street protests (including the storming of the embassy) had materialized without government direction, but rather from student organizations.

Khomeini succeeded, at least, in creating a population of the size he desired, but failed to instill the spirit of traditional Islam in his youth. Modern Iranian youth are more different from the generation that precedes them than perhaps any generation in Iranian history; they differ from their parents on all sorts of social values, ideals, and opinions. One academic study conducted in 2002 by two professors from Tarbiat Modares University in Tehran conducted a statistical analysis of this generation gap, and the results were clear- young Iranians are more progressive, more secular, and friendlier to the West. As an example, only 74% of young (16-34 years) Iranians believed in the necessity of obligatory prayers, compared with 92% of their elders. Only 66% of youth believed in the veiling of women’s faces, compared to the 80% approval of the elder generation. It would be a safe bet to say that these gaps have grown even further since 2002, considering general unrest and 2009 protests that erupted challenging the legitimacy of current President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s election results.

This discontent was preceded by many political clashes that began to make the ideological clash painfully clear. The political paralysis of the early 21st century was due to a gridlock between a growing urban youth, held particularly powerless by an aging clergy and conservative coalition who retained positions of extensive influence. Mohammad Khatami was elected to the post of President in 1997, following a consistent sequence of presidents echoing the values of the deceased Khomeini. Khatami was a figure vaguely reminiscent of Barack Obama in his first victory in 2008; his popularity was unprecedented (Khatami won 70% of the vote in an election with the highest turnout in Iranian history), and he made this possible by energizing the votes of females and the urban youth through promises of reform and social liberalization. But his administration was noteworthy for its inability to accomplish any significant reform, thanks not only to conservative opposition in parliament, but also opposition in the streets and over the airwaves by the religious elite. The lack of tangible progress culminated in a restless student population taking to the streets. Protests erupted throughout the country, led by urban youth and student movements for the most part. The most recent indication of potent ire was the 2009 election protest.

At the moment the outlook seems bleak; Ahmadinejad retains the highest post in the nation, and his close relationship with the increasingly out-of-touch clergy worries many young adults. His method of repression is found in the Basij, a volunteer militia charged with both keeping the peace and enforcing Islamic value throughout society. More often than not, this entails cracking down on protestors and patrolling the streets in search of banned western media products. The Basij are made up primarily of poverty-stricken rural youth, of whom there is also an abundance of in Iran. They are paid a better wage than they could hope to earn in their home villages, so the paramilitary group is a sensible option. But human rights groups and government opponents alike have criticized them for their violent reactions to protest as well as the exploitation of disadvantaged youth (the Basij often vote as a unit, as well).

As of late, this is what the struggle has been reduced to in Iran- the secular urban youth against the Islamist clergy and ruling class. The Consitution of Iran gives a great deal of power to the religious elite, even entitling them to the opportunity to disqualify political candidates who are not in line with Islamic value. In this way it is difficult for any substantial reform to be mounted; there is simply too much opposition from an entrenched ruling class. However, the boomers of Iran’s population are reaching maturity only just now, and as they become of the age to walk the halls of government, the tides may begin to turn. The populace is well-educated and enjoys one of the largest economies in the region, but mismanagement has led to high unemployment rates and other inefficiencies. Iran is a notable absentee on the list of Middle-Eastern countries that overthrew their dictators under the Arab Spring moniker, so perhaps the revolution of 1979 is still too fresh in the memory for Iranians to mobilize an overthrow. But although the youth may be jaded, they are not yet done growing. Once this generation comes to prominence, their discontent with the ruling factions might be so great that we see an entirely new Iran before the middle of the century.


-Samuel Sheridan, FCRH ’14

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