Erstwhile British Prime Minister and writer, Benjamin Disraeli, perhaps said it best with: “the Youth of a Nation are the trustees of posterity”.
This is particularly pertinent in South Africa with approximately 67% of our population below 35 years of age. Youthful populations are generally considered a national asset, as it implies the potential for greater levels of economic activity and GDP growth as these young people start becoming productive members of society. Our youthful population is potentially our greatest hope for the future, even though current statistics indicate that this may also be our greatest failure as a nation. The Q1:2017 Quarterly Labour Force Survey indicates that approximately 58% of young people aged between 15-34 are unemployed. This is simply not sustainable.
Political, academic, and business leaders – the custodians of our national economy – have failed our youth miserably. Politicians in particular, need to be held accountable as the curators of policy and legislation. We have seen consistent lowering of basic educational standards in this country over the past few years as inept politicians desperately attempt to improve their own performance figures. Rather than admit to high failure rates, politicians are quick to lower the pass thresholds. In an era of rapidly escalating globalisation driven by skill-biased technological change, most countries are working extremely hard to ensure their youth are able to compete with their international peers. By consistently lowering the standards for passing, we have massively decreased the quality of our education and in the process doomed our youth to a future in which they have no hope of competing.
SA does arguably have some of the finest tertiary institutions on the continent but this is also where our inadequate basic education really comes to bear. Government currently spends about R13bn per annum on financial assistance to students. The drop-out rate however ranges between 45% – 63% for universities and a shocking 85% for artisanal training. When one considers that only about 5% of our youth are making the grade to enter universities in the first place, this statistic becomes even more alarming. The high unemployment rate amongst our youth should therefore come as no surprise. We have simply not done enough to adequately equip them for participation in the national economy, much less the global economy.
“Education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today” – Malcolm X
A better educated and more highly skilled workforce is an urgent priority for the SA economy. Key to achieving this is the need to improve the pace of the transition from school to work. Our youth currently labour under the misperception that university studies are the only route to prosperity. Artisanal trades are frowned upon and often overlooked by young South Africans. As a developing economy, artisans are probably the most important contributors to our future growth. A recent study to determine the optimal path toward getting the SA economy back on track indicated that we need 40% – 60% of our school leavers entering artisanal trades. Currently only 8% are doing so and when one considers that 85% of those are dropping out before qualifying, it becomes apparent why our economy is grinding to a halt.
Getting our youth to work should also include much-needed entrepreneurial endeavour. Youth by their nature, are generally more willing to take risks, especially when they have little to lose. They are also more adaptable and able to respond to emerging opportunities with greater speed. What they need is access to training and mentorship, access to market opportunities, and access to finance. The only significant job growth over the past 10 years has been in the public sector whilst private sector job creation has remained fairly static. With the government wage bill spiralling out of control and corporates coming under increasing pressure to improve efficiency, we are more likely to see jobs being lost rather than created in these sectors. SME’s are therefore the greatest hope for our future economic growth and job creation.
Within the public sector, global best practice demonstrates that State Owned Enterprises are an ideal environment for the stimulation of broader entrepreneurial activity. This significant opportunity is however going to waste in SA as a small cabal of treasonous thieves loot and plunder this national resource. This rot must be stopped immediately and SOEs repurposed toward becoming a breeding ground for young entrepreneurs, not old politicians.
Large corporates similarly have a responsibility to provide opportunities to youthful entrepreneurs through corporate supply chains. Enterprise and Supplier development, along with Skills Development, are now priority elements in corporate B-BBEE scorecards and much more needs to be done to ensure these priorities are met.
It is said that youth lives on hope, but sadly in SA our youth are feeling an ever-increasing sense of alienation from greater society and hope is diminishing rapidly. We need to put aside our ideological differences and start pulling together as business, political, and academic leadership to provide much-needed guidance and support to the youth of our nation. For they are our future and we cannot create a promising future without hope.