Youth Month is a time when we commemorate the youth of 1976 who died for their ideals of equality and freedom for all. All the fanfare aside, we would like to take an honest look at the youth and have come up with a wishlist which summed up is: “that all youth could get equal chance to do what they love, to maximise their potential, and to contribute to society.”
Wish #1: To ensure all youth have their basic needs met
Before we can even talk about youth participating in shaping their own destiny, let alone the destiny of the country, we have to know that the struggle against poverty is an all-consuming one. Poverty means that youth have to deal with not having food, not having clothes, not having proper housing. Young people across the country have dreams, but for many of them, there are so many barriers within their own lives to reaching those dreams. For many of them, just basic needs, daily survival, that’s where their mind is. It’s hard for them to think about their future. It’s hard for them to think about their education down the line when all they’re thinking about is today. So our wish is that we come up with innovative ways to address these needs as a whole society to ensure that young people can focus on the business of being youth.
Wish #2: Ensuring young people are safe and secure
In the South African society, it is a sad reality that youth experience threats to their safety and security in their homes, in their schools, from other youth as well as within a broader society where violence have become a norm. In total one fifth of learners have experienced violence at school or even some form of cyber bullying. The recent spate of xenophobia is another worrying trend that make young people feel unsafe in their communities. The public health impact of living in violent communities is significant, particularly for children. Among the emotional, behavioral and academic achievement correlates are anxiety, depression, disruptive and aggressive behavior, substance use, school disengagement, and academic failure that may have profound effects on children’s development from early childhood into adolescence and beyond. Our approaches to dealing with the violence has to go beyond just raising awareness to also doing the healing work in communities and employing a whole of community approach to creating safer environments for our young people.
Wish # 3: Social connectedness
Youth struggle with a sense of belonging, and that can manifest itself in many ways. In highly urbanised areas, the loss of extended family networks and social networks have eroded the basis for youth to develop fulfilling relationships and secure bonds with others. The high uptake of technology and social media by youth has also removed the imperative to learn the art of social connectedness that are vital for their ultimate well-being. Additionally, stigma, poverty, migration, disability, abuse within the family, maternal depression, and the death of parents can all break these vital connections and lead to social isolation. Social isolation is especially harmful when it lasts a long time. Belonging (of the right kind) enables young people to grow, it builds their resilience, and can also protect youth. Our approaches in engaging youth has to take into account their need for belonging.
Wish # 4: Quality and relevant education
In South Africa, since 1994, we have been playing catch-up to ensure that all children in South Africa have access to a quality education. What this means is that we have to ensure that all children have access to the facilities, the educators, an adequate supply of books and readers, an adequate way of getting to school. We are still a long way from this if recent reports of lack of toilet facilities, nightshift schools are anything to go by.
At the same time, the current education system (basic and further) has fallen short in producing young graduates that are adaptable, resilient, reflective and self- critical. Although we keep on waxing lyrical of increasing youth entrepreneurship and also employment, we have some serious work to do in preparing young people to effectively deal with the world they find themselves in. Our emphasis in education has been on developing booksmarts and to some extent street smarts. With streetsmarts, you have young people that are savvy and able to effectively navigate their world and the environment they find themselves in to ultimately realise some level of personal development.
Yet, if we are really honest, there is a clear mismatch between what is needed from young people exiting the education system and what they are actually leaving the system with. What is needed is thus some critical conversations about how to create a more holistic, resilient and adaptable young person that can survive in the ever-chaning world of work.
Wish # 5: Opportunities to grow
There are at least 42% of youth that are unemployed, about 72% of the unemployed population. Unfortunately, these youth do not have the skills and education they need to productively contribute in our society. Their disconnection—often precipitated or exacerbated by the failure of critical education, training, and social service systems—places an enormous and unnecessary economic burden on the country.
Improving life outcomes for future generations of youth is grounded in the need to ensure that youth become productive, active members of society— and in doing so, eliminate the inevitable societal loss if we continue down our current path. We should start by making sure our education system meets their needs. Innovative models exist that bridge high school and post secondary education that have demonstrated success at increasing completion rates of students from backgrounds underrepresented in higher education. Despite impressive results, the availability of these types of programmes remain limited. We need a mind-shift across the board that overhauls our system such that throughout their education, young people are provided opportunities to demonstrate their abilities and grew their entrepreneurial spirit. After all, the world of work is changing all the time, and we need young people to be adaptable to that world in order to thrive.
Wish # 6: Youth participate in making the world a better place
It is important that young people recognise that they have a responsibility in contributing to the world they live in. Young people have unique talents, challenges, perspectives and experiences. It is vital for them to use this to drive change, to shape the agenda and to ensure that their voices are taken into account in spaces where decisions are being made about them. To do this, young people should find mentors, learn as much as they can about activism and social responsibility, but also start creating their own initiatives for creating the world they would like to see tomorrow.
Wish # 7: That youth reach their full potential
Last but not least, our wish is for each young person to become the greatest version of themselves. To pursue their dreams and aspirations such that they can achieve those undefinable markers of success that ultimately result in happiness and contentment. To do this though, they have to develop self-esteem, learn to bounce back from setbacks and failures (which are inevitable) and learn to manage themselves whilst connecting to the world around them. Indeed, our wish is for each young person to have a high level of self-acceptance, positive relations with others, autonomy, environmental mastery, purpose in life, and personal growth.