AFRICANGLOBE – Africa’s age structure is said to be reaching its ‘Goldilocks moment’ where things are ‘just right’. Falling birth and mortality rates mean there are more people of working age than ever before and fewer dependents for them to support. In the past, when similar situations have arisen elsewhere, this ‘demographic dividend’ resulted in economic booms.
But what will Africa’s ‘demographic dividend’ bring? Good things of bad things? More young people = more workers = economic growth = good, yes? But what if that growth isn’t distributed fairly? What if there aren’t any jobs for these ‘workers’? And don’t bigger populations exacerbate or create conflict over land, worsen environmental degradation, and increase the likelihood of famine and disease? Won’t all that lead to more uprisings? And don’t uprisings lead to instability and instability to conflict?
Getting Down to Business
This kind of questioning could continue ad nauseam and ad absurdum. Still, however facetiously that list comes across, as a caricature it illustrates three serious points.
Firstly, good/bad binaries are unhelpful; they gloss over the dynamics at play and substitute analysis for moral judgement. Secondly, much writing on the topic derives from outside-in, top-down perspectives. Some seems less concerned by what young Africans want or need and more by how the outside world can capitalise, and tend to downplay the agency of African youth.
The problem with both these tendencies in the literature is that it’s not at all clear that young Africans want change on someone else’s terms, and it’s they who will have the greatest effect on Africa’s ‘demographic dividend’, because they are the dividend.
Thirdly – and this should be obvious – no-one really knows what’s going to happen. This is partly because no one ‘really knows’ what’s happening now: the statistics are contested. Prognostication is further complicated by the vastness and diversity of Africa – not to mention the debates over whether Africa is or isn’t “Rising”.
In any case, the outcome of Africa’s ‘demographic dividend’ depends less, if at all, on some commentators’ perspicacity (or lack thereof) and far more on what young Africans actually want – and how far they are able to realise those wants.
The Time of Youth?
Notwithstanding all those reservations, some clues emerge as to what will happen when researching what already is. In her book, The Time of Youth, Alcinda Honwana characterises the situation many young Africans find themselves in as ‘waithood’. By ‘waithood’, she refers to a period of suspension between childhood and adulthood where youths are not yet fully independent. They are thus suspended, she argues, because there are too few stable jobs. Without them, young people can’t support themselves, let alone a family, and therefore cannot perform all the functions ‘normal society’ expects of them. She places much of the blame for this situation on the neoliberal policies of international financial institutions, bad governance, and political instability.
Honwana conducted hundreds of interviews with young Africans while researching and writing her book. From these, she concludes that young Africans are “deeply disillusioned and sceptical” about the future. For example, Moustapha, from Senegal, told Honwana, “The government is not helping young people at all…They build huge and expensive highways and monuments rather than using the money to create opportunities for young people.”
Often, the problem seems to be less that they can’t find jobs at all, but that these jobs are too low paid, unstable, dangerous, or exploitative to fulfil their needs and expectations. Zeinab, for instance, a 24-year-old from Tunis, was denied payment for some call-centre work: “I was furious! They took advantage of me because they know we [young people] need jobs”. Some become so exasperated by their situation they try to immigrate to Europe. Abdoulaye, a 24-year-old from Senegal, spent years saving for the long, dangerous (and illegal) journey from Senegal to Morocco to Spain, but stopped near the Canary Islands due to a heightened coastguard presence and extreme weather. Abdoulaye had to return home. Honwana’s book is littered with such accounts.
As well as Honwana’s research, the increasing incidence of youth-led protests across Africa points to widespread discontent. Those of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya are only the best-known. To that list, we can add South Africa, Mozambique, Uganda and, more recently, Guinea and Djibouti, among others. Some of these protests have been over joblessness, many over political and socio-economic grievances more broadly; whatever their ‘main causes’, African youth is spearheading protest on a scale not seen for decades.
Despite the problems they face, then, young Africans (and, to varying degrees, their peers elsewhere in Europe and Latin America) are not just sitting around. Many are organising or participating in protests, while most are working hard to ‘just get by’. For a lack of alternatives, they take low-paid, unstable work to support themselves financially, and carve out social and political spheres outside established channels. So while the young people Honwana spoke to seem positive about their generation’s capacity to improve things, not much hope is held out for that of their political leaders. Africa’s gerontocracies are not delivering what African youth want; more stable jobs, of course, but a fairer system of political, economic and social relations as well.
So What ‘Should’ Be Done?
It is not for Western journalists to spout policy recommendations at Africans. In any case, two of the most important international organisations, with respect to youth unemployment in Africa, have already offered such guidance. “The youth unemployment problem in Africa”, argued the International Labour Organisation (ILO) recently, is “more of quality (underemployment, vulnerability and working poverty) than quantity”. This seems to tally with what the young people interviewed by Honwana were saying: more jobs, yes, but more importantly, better ones too. Similarly, the African Development Bank (AfDB) regards stable job creation, when tied to that other panacea – education – as essential to achieving the ‘demographic dividend.’