Young and restless: SA’s bulges not healthy

2011-06-11 12:57

As South Africa gears up to celebrate Youth Day this week, it might be worthwhile to consider the effect, and impact, a young population can have on a country.

Today, our global village can be neatly divided between countries with growing (young) populations, and those with declining (ageing) populations. Countries with more than 40% of the population aged between 15 and 29 ­(Generation Y) are labelled as having a “youth bulge”.

Youth bulges are usually associated with unrest, urban disturbance and, at the extreme end, revolts and revolution.

They can set the stage for mass social change as we have witnessed in the Arab world: ­another global hotspot where youth bulges occur.

The political revolts in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya were fuelled by relatively young citizens fed up with high rates of unemployment and the lack of democratic governments.

Unlike their parents, they were not prepared to tow the line and keep their mouths shut. This behaviour is typical of Generation Y.

Baby boomers – Generation Y’s parents – were born into a world filled with hope and optimism, whereas Generation Y has been exposed to a world filled with many challenges and much disappointment (high ­divorce rates, HIV, crumbling economies and a damaged environment).

They also happen to be the most educated of all generations and, thanks to technology, they do not see their elders as the font of knowledge (they have Google instead), hence their ­apparent lack of respect.

South Africa has an extreme youth bulge, with 65.8% of our population under the age of 30.

This in itself should be a large red flag. But youth bulges do not always negatively affect a country.

In fact, a youth bulge can be a country’s main asset, if – and only if – that country has two things in place: a brilliant education system and ample employment opportunities. South Africa, unfortunately, has neither.

University of the Free State rector Professor Jonathan Jansen recently said the ­biggest threat to our country was not crime or corruption, but our failed education system.

He ­estimated that three- quarters of our schools were ­dysfunctional.

The ­opportunity gap to move from ­secondary to tertiary education is closing fast, and the lowering of pass grades will help no one.

But even for the lucky ones – those able to make it through tertiary education with a degree – the ­prospects of finding a job in a post-recession world are slim.

Our unemployment rate now stands at ­between 25% and 30%, and economic analysts ­observe that even when our economy grows it does not necessarily create more jobs.

What we also need in South Africa are entrepreneurs and Generation Y are more than willing.

But we do not have, as an economic analyst put it, “an enabling environment” to kick-start and support small businesses.

It is not difficult to see how the spiral of disillusionment can quickly turn the positive energy associated with a youth bulge, into a negative one.

Another area where a significant youth bulge ­occurs in South Africa is unfortunately in our prisons.

One-third of our prison population is under 25, and it is widely acknowledged that once you find yourself in that system, it is very difficult to get out. Our internal youth bulges are growing in all the wrong places.

So when we celebrate Youth Day, let’s pause and consider the fact that while the youth should embody untapped potential and unfettered dreams, we can’t expect anyone to blossom in a quagmire of disillusionment.

Just remember that our elections in 2019 will be determined by this very same generation. Question is: will they wait that long to be heard?

Chang is the founder of Flux Trends: 

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