IT WAS said of the class of 1976. It was said of the youth who came of age in the early 1990s, just before the dawn of democracy. Each generation was declared as “lost”.

Now, just more than two decades into democracy, another generation faces the grim prospects of unemployment and underemployment. It’s not difficult to understand how human potential was wasted under apartheid. That was the point: to create a marginal underclass to serve an elite.

But it is disheartening to see post-apartheid SA trapped in that toxic cycle of lost generations. Even the born-frees, who were cloaked with so much hope and expectation, have not managed to shake off this term. This is not to diminish the strides that have been made in the past 22 years. Yet, it is clear that the scale of the developmental deficit was underestimated and continues to be under-appreciated.

The dire statistics released by Statistics SA recently on the state of the youth (those between the ages of 15 and 34) challenge the policy approach taken by successive post-apartheid administrations. Further, they underline the true cost of corruption, weak governance and incompetent administration. Under the circumstances, every rand that is wasted is a rand too much.

Entrepreneurship is often seen as a cure-all for youth unemployment and underemployment. Teach them to create a job, not to find a job, goes the injunction. In the five years under review by Stats SA, youth entrepreneurship took a knock. The share of young entrepreneurs as a percentage of all entrepreneurs fell by 2.6 percentage points between 2009 and 2014.

This was particularly driven by the decline in the share of young women, which fell by 6.2 percentage points, while that of young men fell by 0.9 of a percentage point.

This can partly be attributed to tough economic conditions globally. However, it is also unfair and unrealistic to place the burden of job creation on ill-equipped youth. A youth-led entrepreneurship boom has failed to emerge despite the government and the private sector rolling out programmes to fund, train, advise and mentor young entrepreneurs. Analysis is needed to assess the effectiveness of these initiatives and their ability to deliver solutions at scale.

I have often heard arguments that nothing much can be done for individuals who have gone past their basic education years. This suggests writing off a whole generation in the hope of preparing the next one better. But this cannot work. The next generation is nurtured and shaped in households and communities run by the current one. It is also difficult to sustain a democracy when large segments of the population feel abandoned by the system. In this gap, not only does despair flourish, but dangerous forms of mobilisation find opportunity.

The challenge of diminished opportunities for the youth is one SA shares with many other countries. In a globally competitive and integrated economic world order, these countries and regions have struggled to define a jobs-rich economic growth strategy.

The voice and needs of the youth, many of whom have never worked and have never been members of trade unions, need to be prominent in economic policy discussions and processes. The youth made up 71% of the unemployed in 2014. Policy deliberations are dominated by the needs and viewpoints of people with experiences informed by the pre-1994 labour market. The assumptions and mental models that guide an older generation — of factories and mines, permanent (perhaps even lifelong) jobs, a closed economy — do not hold anymore.

Young people may want to make different trade-offs between access to the market and labour protections. Exploitation will never go out of fashion, so the challenge is to balance the legitimate desire to make work secure and rewarding against the horrors of unemployment.

This column was published in the Business Day

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