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. 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 and 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. 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% and 63% for universities and a shocking 85% for artisanal training.
“Education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today” – Malcolm X
A better educated and 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; consequently, only 8% are taking this route. When one considers that 85% of those are dropping out before qualifying, it becomes apparent why our economy is grinding to a halt. A recent study to determine ways to get the SA economy back on track indicated that we need 40% to 60% of our school-leavers entering artisanal trades.
Getting our youth to work should also include much-needed entrepreneurial endeavour. Youth are generally more willing to take risks, especially when they have little to lose. What they need is access to training and mentorship, access to market opportunities, and access to finance.
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.