Analysis

Israelis Take Too Long to Grow Up – and It’s Costing Us

Young people don’t get their BAs until well into the twenties, which adds up to too many lost years of productivity

Students at Tel Aviv University, June 9, 2019.
Meged Gozani

The fact is that in Israel no one is in a hurry to grow up. Figures that have been published in recent weeks by the Central Bureau of Statistics and analyzed by Gilad Malach of the Israel Democracy Institute prove it: In Israel there’s no urgency to decide what you want to do as an adult. In practical terms, it means that young people take their time getting their bachelor’s degrees.

Elsewhere in the world, it’s a seamless transition at age 18 from high school to college. That may be too young an age to go on to higher education and many students spend four years pursuing a general education before deciding what they want to specialize in with a master’s degree.

In Israel, age 18 (at least for most of the Jewish majority) marks the start of two years of army service for women and two years and 18 months for men. The choice of what to study in college can wait.

But there is another category of young people who don’t serve in the army, namely Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews. But even they aren’t in any rush to make life decisions either: The average age at which Israeli Arabs, both men and women, receive a BA is 24.7 and for ultra-Orthodox women, it’s 24.8. Assuming it takes them the usual three years to compete their course requirements, it means they are just starting at age 22 – four years after finishing high school.

Neither has to wait four years to start a higher education, but it seems to be regarded in Israel at a growing-up period – in fact the minimum period young people need to mature, because it appears that the majority of the population allows themselves even longer.

Thus, secular women complete their bachelor’s degree on average at age 27.1. Again, assuming they take three years to complete the coursework, that means they begin at an average age of 24.1. Mandatory army service keeps them in uniform normally until age 20, which means they delay by an average of more than four years the start of their higher education. Army service doesn’t create any urgency to make decisions about what they want to do in adulthood. Secular male Israelis take even longer, graduating with a BA at age 28.7 on average.

Malach sees that gap as the price of army service paid by secular youth. Instead of getting their BAs at age 25, secular Israeli men are nearly 29 when they graduate. It comes not only at great personal cost but at a cost to the Israeli economy, Malach says. It’s a loss of 2.4 to 4 years of output per capita because it delays their entry into the workforce.

His conclusion is that Israel needs to shorten the length of army service. (That’s a process already under way. It was recently reduced to 32 months from 36 and there are plans to cut it further). And, he says, those who serve need to be compensated for their lost years of income.

It’s no secret that army service delays Israelis’ entering the workforce, but Malach’s figures show that the delay is even longer and that young people voluntarily aggravate the impact. It seems the desire to enter full adulthood slowly outweighs the resulting lost years of income.

By the way, there are all kinds of implications to delaying higher education. On the one hand, they choose their course of study at a relatively advanced age, which reduces the risk of their making the wrong choice. But many young Israelis begin their higher education as working people, a phenomenon that turns their education into a sideline.

One class of Israelis we haven’t related to is ultra-Orthodox men. For the small minority who even pursue a BA, they finish their studies at an average age of 31.4. Assuming it takes them three years, that means they begin their studies at an age when everyone else is finishing theirs.

Why do they want so long? It’s, of course, not army service but because until age 24, they are trapped inside the yeshivas due to the terms legislation exempting them from military service.

If they leave, they risk losing their army exemption. Once on the outside, they have to catch up on their secular studies, take a high school matriculation exam and complete pre-college courses to get themselves up to speed.

Those wasted years are entirely the fault of the state, which gives them no choice but to stay in yeshiva and fails to ensure they get the general education required by law.

In any case, the big increase in male Haredi, ultra-Orthodox, enrolment rates the government once bragged about as the key to lifting them out of poverty has ground to a halt in the past two years. Only about 3.5% of male Haredim are in higher education, even though they represent 12% of Israel’s population. The long delay comes at a price because just like secular Israelis who start college later in life, Haredi men are married with families. Their rate of graduation is very low.

The solution is the same for both populations. Shorter army service and compensation for secular Israelis; shorter yeshiva requirements, say to age 22, for Haredim. At age 22, most ultra-Orthodox men aren’t yet parents and they can better cope with the academic requirements of college.

It’s true that lowering the mandatory yeshiva age would widen the equality-of-service gap between the secular and Haredi population. The latter would still not serve but be free to pursue a higher education and start work at a younger age without ever serving the country. As policy, it would not be fair, but it would be wise.