Globally, young people have been at the centre of political and social upheaval in the midst of the lingering economic crisis that has hit them particularly hard. The phenomenon of the dumping of human faeces in public places might just be the tip of the ice berg of what awaits South Africa.
About the unemployment plight of the youth in Europe, Germany’s Chancellor and Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble said last week, “We must win this battle against youth unemployment or we will lose the battle to hold Europe together.”
In a broader context, news on the economic position of the younger generation coming out of the United States is also cause for concern in even the world’s biggest economy.
The US’ Urban Institute found that the net worth of today’s 30-somethings in that country, when adjusted for inflation, is about 2% below the net worth of people of their age three decades ago.
In Canada unemployment for people under 25 went up to 15.5% in April of this year compared to 5.8% for those between the ages of 25 and 54. Almost a million Canadians under the age of 30 were found not to be employed, or in education or training in 2011.
The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) recently reported that in the developed world, 22 million young people are not in employment, education or training (NEETs). It called on its member countries to do something fast to avoid these discouraged young people becoming permanently unemployable.
Looking at the wider picture, including the developing world, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) last month reported the global NEETs figure to be 200 million with another 73 million young people being formally unemployed.
The ILO also warned that global youth unemployment is set to continue growing over the next five years, putting a generation at risk of lasting damage to their earnings potential and job prospects throughout their lives.
Last week Chunlin Zhang, lead private sector development specialist at the World Bank, said at a Department of Trade and Industry economic policy dialogue that the NEETs problem has emerged as South Africa's most urgent challenge.
Currently, 70% of the nearly 5-million South Africans who are unemployed are aged between 15 and 34. “So, when you talk about South Africa’s unemployment problem, we are already talking about youth unemployment,” he said.
It is important to note that in its report the ILO also warned that the “scarring” caused by the underutilisation of young talent will have lasting economic and political consequences.
“Perhaps the most important scarring is in terms of the current youth generation’s distrust in the socio-economic and political systems,” the organisation noted.
In its report on the speech by Wolfgang Schäuble the Toronto Globe and Mail comes to the conclusion that “... from the suburbs of Stockholm to the streets of Athens, however, the battle is being lost one riot at a time. The unrest that recently rocked Sweden reflects a youth unemployment rate of almost 25%, with young immigrants hit hardest. The jobless rate among those under 25 stands at 60% in Greece. It’s 56% in Spain and above 40% in Portugal and Italy.”
These figures are disconcertingly similar to the South African experience. And, while Mr. Schäuble was unveiling a 'New Deal' for Europe’s youth in Paris, under which the European Investment Bank will allot €6-billion to small businesses across the continent to hire young workers, South Africa’s youth employment programmes have not yet yielded much success.
Despite efforts on many fronts to address this problem, the Development Bank of Southern Africa in 2011 reported that “youth unemployment and marginalisation remain disconcertingly high at present.”
“A new generation of young South Africans are facing the same future that young people faced at the end of the apartheid era, but this time without the hope that a new political dispensation and policy environment will bring about change,” the DBSA wrote.
This sentiment is echoed by Dr. Jan du Plessis, virtual editor and publisher of Intersearch, who wrote in his May/June management briefing: “It seems that the current political dispensation has run its time as it cannot deliver.”
This assessment by Du Plessis, based on South Africa's lack of capacity in human capital measured in terms of available skills, and considering developments on the global front, should be read with a recent speech by Professor Hermann Giliomee, vice-president of the South African Institute of Race Relations.
Analysing the political history of South Africa Giliomee comes to the conclusion that “...major political change in South Africa has not come about incrementally but as a result of a Big Bang, brought about by some major external cataclysm. In South Africa the 20th century cataclysms were the First World War, the Second World War and the end of the Cold War.”
The protracted global economic crisis since 2007, and especially the impact of it on the youth of the world, might just have brought the country to the eve of another 'Big Bang' event.