De­bunk­ing myths of youth job­less­ness

CityPress - - Voices - Lau­ren Gra­ham voices@city­

As we re­peat­edly face the ques­tion of youth unem­ploy­ment, it is tempt­ing to fall back into vic­tim-blam­ing – “young peo­ple are lazy, they are en­ti­tled, no won­der they can­not find work”. These sen­ti­ments are ex­pressed in var­i­ous ways. Young peo­ple are thought to sim­ply “sit on the side of the road” or they “turn down low-pay­ing jobs be­cause they ex­pect higher wages”. Such dis­course per­pet­u­ates the myth that South African young peo­ple ex­pect hand-outs and are not will­ing to find work. Vic­tim-blam­ing is eas­ier than fac­ing the struc­tural na­ture of unem­ploy­ment.

Re­search con­ducted by the Cen­tre for So­cial De­vel­op­ment in Africa (CSDA) at the Univer­sity of Jo­han­nes­burg on youth em­ploy­ment and unem­ploy­ment ex­pe­ri­ences of­fers in­sight into the strug­gles that young peo­ple face in ac­cess­ing the labour mar­ket. The study in­volved 2 000 young peo­ple from vul­ner­a­ble house­holds who were par­tic­i­pat­ing in youth em­ploy­a­bil­ity pro­grammes, and pro­vides the ev­i­dence to de­bunk some of these com­mon myths.

Con­trary to the idea that young peo­ple are lazy and that they sim­ply sit on the side of the road are the find­ings from the study that point to their in­cred­i­ble re­silience and agency in seek­ing work. As many as 91% of the par­tic­i­pants had at­tained Grade 12, de­spite the odds be­ing stacked against them. The bulk of these young peo­ple came from poor house­holds where food in­se­cu­rity was ex­pressed as an on­go­ing chal­lenge.

Typ­i­cally young peo­ple from poor back­grounds strug­gle to ac­cess higher ed­u­ca­tion, as the #FeesMustFall protests have high­lighted. De­spite this, 42.9% of par­tic­i­pants had com­pleted some form of post-sec­ondary ed­u­ca­tion. More than a third of these ac­quired a Na­tional Diploma and 44% ob­tained an oc­cu­pa­tional cer­tifi­cate. This ad­vances the no­tion that these young peo­ple, far from be­ing lazy, are beat­ing the odds.

Fur­ther op­pos­ing the idea that young peo­ple are lazy is the find­ing that par­tic­i­pants con­tin­ued to search for em­ploy­ment de­spite on­go­ing job­less­ness – 73% had ex­pe­ri­enced chronic unem­ploy­ment (be­ing un­em­ployed for longer than one year). Over 80% of those who were un­em­ployed at the time of the study were ac­tively seek­ing work. They had made, on av­er­age, two to three job ap­pli­ca­tions per month in the three months pre­ced­ing the study. This was de­spite the re­peated re­jec­tion and the high costs they in­curred in do­ing so. The av­er­age trans­port and non-trans­port cost of work­seek­ing was R938 per month – an amount that far ex­ceeds their monthly per capita house­hold in­come of R527 per month. Par­tic­i­pants also re­mained op­ti­mistic about their prospects of find­ing work, strongly be­liev­ing that they pos­sessed the abil­ity to change their fu­tures. This paints a pic­ture of young peo­ple who are re­mark­ably hope­ful and re­silient in the face of chronic unem­ploy­ment, a very dif­fer­ent rep­re­sen­ta­tion when com­pared with im­ages of hope­less­ness and in­do­lence por­trayed in the me­dia.

An­other com­mon myth is that young peo­ple feel they are en­ti­tled. Linked to this con­cept of en­ti­tle­ment is the idea that young peo­ple have un­re­al­is­ti­cally high reser­va­tion wages (the lowest wage an in­di­vid­ual will be will­ing to work for). This is of­ten touted as a key rea­son for youth unem­ploy­ment. The CSDA’s re­search points to a some­what dif­fer­ent re­al­ity. While young peo­ple in the study had rel­a­tively high ex­pec­ta­tions of what a fair wage would be, given their skills and ex­pe­ri­ence, around R7 423, they prob­a­bly priced in the sig­nif­i­cant costs that they were ex­pe­ri­enc­ing with job-seek­ing – most of which would need to be re­paid once they started work­ing – as well as the debt in­curred for their post-sec­ondary ed­u­ca­tion. How­ever, when asked about the lowest wage they would be will­ing to work for, they typ­i­cally in­di­cated a monthly av­er­age wage only slightly higher than av­er­age wages for their age group.

Most im­por­tantly, when par­tic­i­pants of fo­cus groups were probed fur­ther about the lowest wage they would be will­ing to work for, many in fact in­di­cated that they would be will­ing to work for less than sec­torally deter­mined min­i­mum wages.

Most young peo­ple in fact in­di­cated that they would not re­ject a job, re­gard­less of the wage of­fered. There was a wide­spread be­lief that they ought to take what­ever job they could, given the low prob­a­bil­ity of an­other of­fer be­ing made.

This sug­gests that while young, un­em­ployed peo­ple have a reser­va­tion wage in mind, this does not nec­es­sar­ily trans­late into their job-seek­ing be­hav­iour. This find­ing brings into ques­tion whether the high lev­els of unem­ploy­ment among young peo­ple can, in part, be at­trib­uted to high reser­va­tion wages.

The path­way to em­ploy­a­bil­ity and work for these re­search par­tic­i­pants is stag­gered, of­ten leav­ing tal­ented, am­bi­tious, op­ti­mistic and ed­u­cated young peo­ple locked out of the labour mar­ket al­to­gether. This rep­re­sents a loss of hu­man cap­i­tal and re­sources to the econ­omy and wider so­ci­ety.

While pop­u­lar dis­courses of­ten place the blame for youth unem­ploy­ment at the feet of young peo­ple them­selves, our re­search paints a pic­ture of driven, rel­a­tively well-ed­u­cated, op­ti­mistic young peo­ple who are ea­ger to find their first jobs, and break them­selves and their house­holds out of poverty. The find­ings point to the struc­tural na­ture of unem­ploy­ment, but also to the need for ser­vices that will sup­port young peo­ple to po­ten­tially un­lock their tal­ents and ca­pa­bil­i­ties. While this would be ben­e­fi­cial in and of it­self, it will in turn sup­port the wider econ­omy and so­ci­ety over time.

Pro­fes­sor Gra­ham is as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor and deputy di­rec­tor of the Cen­tre for So­cial De­vel­op­ment in Africa at

the Univer­sity of Jo­han­nes­burg

TALK TO US What do you think are the chal­lenges fac­ing young peo­ple seek­ing work?

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