The Conversation:

In early January, after tensions between Iran and the United States escalated to the brink of war, President Donald Trump announced a detente of sorts, stating, “The United States is ready to embrace peace with all who seek it.”

It may have sounded like a conciliatory gesture, but the Trump administration went on to levy additional economic sanctions against the country only two days later.

As someone who has studied the lives of Iran’s working classes, I know just how damaging economic warfare has been. It’s hit young Iranians, who comprise a large portion of the population, particularly hard. High rates of inflation – on the order of 38.6% over the past 12 months – and a youth unemployment rate of 28.6% have drastically reduced their ability to purchase basic goods and feel any semblance of financial security.

Over the past 12 years, I’ve studied various groups of lower-class young people and their families in their homes, neighborhoods and workplaces, in shops, and in parks. I’ve also interviewed 44 youth between the ages of 15 and 29 who have been sidelined to the socioeconomic margins.

I wanted to know how they cope with prolonged insecurity and the constant threat of crisis.

Interestingly – and despite what you might see on the news – many don’t react by rebelling against authority or by regularly taking to the streets.

A central observation from my research and forthcoming book has been that, when faced with conditions of uncertainty, the young people I spoke with simply sought respect, acceptance and support from their communities. Life becomes a quest not for revolution, riches or vengeance, but for dignity.

A highly conformist culture

The desire for status and dignity is an integral part of Iranian society.

Most of the poor, younger city dwellers I studied try to achieve this through both their conduct and their dress. They want to be seen as classy, diligent and moral. In communities that value prestige and look down on poverty, this becomes their ticket to a better life.

So in an attempt to conceal their poverty, they’ll spend their limited income on the latest trends so they can attain a “modern” appearance, from having the latest smartphones to wearing brand-name shoes and shirts – or at least knockoffs.

In order to avoid being seen as lazy or delinquent, the young people I interviewed work diligently and avoid being associated with petty criminals, like drug dealers. Even though there’s rarely enough work to go around, they get creative. They work in the informal economy as shop apprentices, street vendors and seamstresses. Those who can’t find work take up unpaid work babysitting for family members or helping with a family business in an effort to appear hardworking. By doing this, they can assume a moral high ground – regardless of how little money they’re actually making.

As one local, middle-aged woman told me, “There’s something wrong with a kid who doesn’t work.”

These young men and women are adhering to a set of values prized by their communities and promoted by society through billboards, national television and official speeches.

The result is a relatively stable social order – and a youth culture that’s highly conformist.


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