The fantasy author Philip Pullman writes in The Golden Compass that it is the duty of the old to be anxious on behalf of the young. And the duty of the young is to scorn the anxiety of the old. The energy, hopefulness and optimism of the young is a precious gift to those around them.
The philosopher Aristotle, however, said that “youth is easily deceived, because it is quick to hope”. I am concerned that we, as society, are letting down our young people and that we are doing so at our own peril.
The International Labour Organization (ILO) states that even before the Covid-19 pandemic young people (aged 15 to 24) were about three times more likely to be unemployed than adults. The dire situation prompted the ILO (at its 101st International Labour Conference in June 2012), to adopt a Resolution calling for “immediate, targeted and renewed action to tackle the youth employment crisis”. Our region has the youngest population globally, and this will continue to be the case in the foreseeable future.
On 16 June, South Africans celebrate Youth Day to commemorate the Soweto Youth Uprising on this day in 1976 and also to recognise the important role of young people in our society. Sadly, with each passing year the cynicism seems to increase around pursuing a sustainable and viable future for our youth. What are the reasons for this scepticism?
One of the prime reasons is the lack of gainful economic opportunities, in particular employment for young people in South Africa. According to the Quarterly Labour Force Survey (QLFS) for Quarter 1 of 2023, published by Statistics South Africa on 16 May, the official unemployment rate in the country is 32.9%. The expanded rate is 42.4%.
In 2008, the expanded unemployment rate for the 15-to-24 age group was 56.4% (Q23:1 now 71.2%) and for the 25-to-34 group it was 33.6% (Q23:1 now 49.8%).
Although the pandemic had an undeniable negative impact on employment in South Africa, these statistics show that the youth unemployment crisis is on a 15-year downward-spiralling trend. Higher education remains an important safeguard against unemployment as the latest QLFS states that “8% of the unemployed had other tertiary qualifications, while only 2.7% of unemployed persons were graduates”, which means that the graduate unemployment rate of about 10.6% is significantly lower than the national unemployment rate of 32.9%.
Students cannot realistically be expected to be successful in their studies when they are neither well-prepared for university nor enjoy the basic freedoms and conditions needed for focused and satisfactory performance.
But the graduate unemployment rate is therefore no reason for celebration as the rate has doubled in the past decade.
An additional perspective that one should not lose sight of is that there are about 10.2 million people aged 15 to 24 years in South Africa and of those 36.1% were not in employment, education or training (NEET). The percentage highlights that a significant percentage of young people are neither active in the labour market nor growing their knowledge or skills base.
Another reason is the inability of our political economy system, in particular the lack of adequate funding for reading interventions, to improve basic education outcomes, as emphasised by the recently released 2023 Background Report for the 2030 Reading Panel. The serious gaps in availability of early childhood development initiatives for most of our very young further exacerbates the challenges for the youth to successfully navigate further and higher education.
Other reasons include high levels of poverty and inequality, violence (in particular gender-based violence), the reality of climate change and poor mental well-being.
From the perspective of one in the higher education sector, these conditions are interrelated and, at times, overwhelming.
Read Daily Maverick’s Youth Day coverage here
On the one hand, the pressure to succeed in tertiary education is exceedingly high since a (relevant) degree from a reputable institution is, rightly, viewed as an important step towards a better and more secure future.
On the other hand, students cannot realistically be expected to be successful in their studies when they are neither well-prepared for university nor enjoy the basic freedoms and conditions needed for focused and satisfactory performance.
Urgent interventions needed
It is puzzling why the precarity of our youth is not receiving more attention by those in powerful and influential positions. Calls for action leading up to national observance days are not enough. Structural interventions are urgently required, and these must be well-planned, costed and budgeted for, and then implemented in a transparent way.
To move the needle, interventions must also be coordinated between the different clusters, including trade, industry and employment, higher education and training, safety and security and social development. It goes without saying that those affected as well as those working with the young should be involved at every stage – from conceptualisation to implementation and regular monitoring and evaluation.
Given the dire situation of our young people, it is time for us to think seriously about what we wish for, hope for and expect. In higher education, for example, increased emphasis is now placed on programme renewal to ensure that graduates not only leave campus with a qualification, but with the necessary knowledge, skills and competencies to thrive in the rapidly changing labour market.
Such a strategy has many components (including the inputs of discipline experts, agile internal and external accreditation processes, the need for resources to make the necessary changes to study material, methodology and teaching and support to reconfigure administrative and other systems). The cost is therefore high; however, the cost of not doing so is much higher.
Perhaps the usefulness of Youth Day (other than commemorating the historic Soweto Uprising) is that it prompts us to do this and, hopefully, take concerted action. The call for action globally and nationally needs to be renewed and intensified, but moreover it must result in concrete and coordinated actions and forward momentum that will benefit the youth.
In the absence of improved conditions for a gainful and active role for young people, there is a serious danger of social unrest, and our country will never realise our constitutional aspiration of a society where everyone can reach their full potential. DM