Young people all over the world are struggling to save enough money to move out of their parents’ homes, get married and raise families. No longer children, but not yet regarded as adults, they are stuck in a period of “waithood”.
The costs go beyond simply paying for a big wedding. In order to qualify as worthy husbands, Singerman says, Egyptian grooms and their families need to save up for dower money or jewellery to give the bride. They also need to find a place to live and fill it with the many trappings of married life.
She found that when all of that was accounted for, the cost of marriage averaged 20,194 Egyptian pounds ($6,000 in 1999). That was equivalent to two-and-a-half times the total annual expenditure of an average Egyptian family.
“In Egypt young people live with their families until they get married, and frankly they are not considered adults until they get married, especially for women,” says Singerman.
But since they definitely aren’t children either, she coined a new term to describe the long period of limbo that preceded marriage – “waithood”.
“Bamboccioni” (big dummy boys) – describes Italian men in their 20s and 30s who still live with their parents, much like the “yo-yo generation” of young people in the UK that move back home after university. In West Africa, “youthmen” are young men who haven’t yet attained adulthood in society’s eyes. Meanwhile, “freeters” in Japan and “slackers” in the US describe a legion of young people unable or unwilling to get a “proper” job.
The World Bank defines youth unemployment as “the share of the labour force ages 15-24 without work but available for and seeking employment”.
“What I realised is that although waithood was very debilitating for young people, it is also a phase of extreme creativity,” she says, “because life goes on and young people find ways to cope with it.”
She cites young people’s willingness to find work in the informal economy, to migrate, and to affiliate themselves to revolutionary or radical causes as responses to a situation that has been imposed on them by failed economic policies and corrupt governments.
Many of the activists that took part in the 2011 string of protests that came to be known as the Arab Spring were young, educated but socially excluded, with plenty of spare time on their hands. The past decade has seen a rise in the number of protests in which young people feature prominently, from Mozambique to Greece, to the UK.
Carolina, who lives in Barcelona, Spain, reflects on how her life diverged from the path laid out for her by her parents.
I remember when I was in my 20s, studying in college, I thought that when I was a 30-something I would be married, with family, with kids, and with a very stable job. Now I’m in my 40s and none of that happened.
Because my parents were married and had me when they were young, I was always told that family equals stability. My parents also want me to have children because they want to be grandparents.
Maybe my friends that have families think I am not mature enough. When you have children, you have a commitment, a responsibility to them, and I don’t have this. They probably think, “OK, she likes to travel, she likes to go out, she likes to do a lot of things like we did when we were 20. But we are already 40!”
I could have been married if I wanted but I didn’t think that it was the right time for me, and I prefer to be happy with myself than unhappy in a family life that I don’t really want. For example, it was my dream to live in New York and yeah, I did it.
After I came back from the US I was unemployed. I had several jobs, one after another, but always temporary ones. Every time I was unemployed I moved back in with my parents.
When you’re living by your own for a long time, then go back to your parents you feel like a child again.
I can speak foreign languages and my parents couldn’t understand why I was unemployed after all they had done. It was very difficult for me, but it was for them as well.
Having carried out research in Mozambique, South Africa, Senegal and Tunisia, anthropologist Alcinda Honwana argues that most young people in Africa are stuck in waithood.