Working Together for Youth

In youth month, we celebrate the role our youth played in bringing about democracy, and we reflect on the current circumstances of youth and what we need to do going forward.

It is important to look to the future with a clear sense of the present.  And so I want to state one thing clearly at the beginning:  we are not providing enough economic opportunity for young people, and the gap between younger and older people in labour market participation has continued to grow.

This is not a failure of any sector or agency or policy, nor is the problem only confronting South Africa in the post-Covid world.

But we do need to recognise the scope of what we must address.

South Africa’s unemployment crisis is, really, a crisis of unemployment of those aged 34 and younger. Even before Covid, the total jobs available to this cohort had not grown in a decade, and in 2018 the number of unemployed and discouraged youth outnumbered employed youth for the first time.

Recently released data confirms that the Covid years have reduced the jobs available for young people by roughly 300 000, and the youth unemployment rate, if we include the discouraged, now stands at 56%.

Job losses have been particularly concentrated amongst youth who have not completed secondary education. At the same time, we see growing evidence of tertiary graduate unemployment: 1 in 4 tertiary graduates is currently unemployed.

To turn the tide, and we are very much capable of doing this, we will need to step up some of the domestic work we already do, and we will need to align our efforts and partnerships with globally emerging trends that hold both risk and opportunity. 

We need to do our utmost to ensure young people are prepared for work and entrepreneurial opportunities arising in the digital economy. 4IR technologies are set to accelerate further, and if we are not prepared for shake-ups in our economies we risk being left behind.

Policies can and must help, but ultimately the best asset is a flexible, resilient, tech-savvy mindset that is developed from a young age. Girls, in particular, must be encouraged into science and tech fields of study and work, to address gender biases that still remain.

As the word of work changes, an entrepreneurial orientation must become part of any younger work-seekers toolkit, and we need to nurture entrepreneurial values such as seeing opportunities, solving problems, and learning from failure.

We also need to celebrate our entrepreneurs, and ensure that young people hear success stories of entrepreneurs they can relate to. So many of the successful people I have been privileged to meet can point to a particular hero, a role model, who helped them to expand their own sense of what was possible.

We can also do more to link our young people with opportunities that the private sector is already making available, and we can better prepare them for job interviews, and for their first days of work: these are simple, concrete things, but done well, and at scale, they can have a transformative impact. Conversely, we can and must support the private sector better to design and implement meaningful internships, work experience drives and the like.

Research and surveys suggest that, globally, young people right now are less happy than a decade ago. The reasons are complex, but we need to seriously grapple with youth mental health challenges as part of the issue we are addressing. Helping youth cultivate mental resilience, ensuring support is available when they need it, sharing advice: these must simply become the norm in all institutions and communities.

This Youth Month, on 15 June, the Motsepe Foundation will be hosting our second Youth Information and Opportunities Expo in Johannesburg. We have done our utmost to design the day in order to address some of the concerns and priorities I’ve outlined here.

Working with excellent partners, this will be a varied and dynamic event aimed at inspiring, transferring skills, and unlocking meaningful, concrete opportunities to generate real momentum in youth economic readiness and inclusion.

Sessions will look at the changing nature of work, at what it takes to be an entrepreneur, at youth mental health resilience, as well as how to foster youth leadership.

We will also have a range of mentoring sessions and workshops on concrete skills like doing job interviews well.

At the heart of the Expo is the platform for companies to exhibit, meet and interact with our youthful alumni and other young people, both to share information and to get a nuanced sense of needs and challenges amongst unemployed youth. 

As we begin this important month, I would like to encourage every person to acknowledge our youth, to help them with opportunities, to help generate the momentum we need if we are to reduce youth unemployment.

Working together, we can help ensure youth have the most indispensable thing of all, a sense of hope and of their own dignity and agency.