Alcinda Honwana is Visiting Professor of International Development at the Open University. She will be giving a talk “‘Enough!’ Will Youth Protests Drive Political Change in Africa?” as part of the London School of Economics Africa public lecture series on Wednesday 18 November 2015 at 6.30 pm.
Young people have caught the attention of politicians as their backing of Jeremy Corbyn in Britain, Bernie Sanders in the US, Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece changes the electoral landscape. In Africa they changed governments in Egypt, Tunisia, Senegal and Burkina Faso, writes Alcinda Honwana.
The world has never been so young. Today there are more young people than ever before with about 1.8 billion between the ages of 10 and 24. The majority of them live in developing countries. But global economic policies over the past decade mean that young people’s transitions to adulthood have become increasingly uncertain and a growing number of young women and men, both educated and non-educated, find themselves unemployed or underemployed, and have to improvise livelihoods outside of dominant economic and familial frameworks. While chronological age may define some of them as adults, they are still waiting to attain the social markers of adulthood: earning a proper living, being fully independent, establishing families and becoming taxpayers.
In West Africa the vernacular term “youthman” describes those who are stuck in this liminal position. In the US and UK, expressions such as the “boomerang” or the “yo-yo” generation have been used to describe graduates who return home and continue to rely on their parents for support. In Japan, “freeters” or “parasite singles” refer to the growing number of young people who have difficulty entering the labour market or starting their own families. In Italy “bambuccioni” evokes the image of grown-up males still living with their parents. Similar terms appear in cultures around the world. I use the term “waithood” for those people trapped in a seemingly endless wait for adulthood, struggling with unemployment and underemployment. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO) in a new report released 8 October, a survey of 26 countries found “more than half of young adults [25−29 years old] had still not completed the transition to stable or satisfactory work” – the “waithood” generation.
On 23 October 2015 it was reported that in Britain a fifth of young adults are staying in the family home until they are at least 26, in part because people under 30 have suffered a fall in average incomes of about 20% since the 2008 crash. The ILO also found that in 2014 youth unemployment rates exceeded 20 per cent in two-thirds of the European countries, and in the EU as a whole 43 per cent of employed young people were in temporary work.
The report further indicates that “youth in developing countries continue to be plagued by working poverty stemming from the irregularity of work and lack of formal employment and social protection. In 2013, more than one-third (37.8 per cent) of employed youth in the developing world were living on less than US$2 per day. … In most low-income countries, at least three in four young workers fall within the category of irregular employment, engaged either in own-account work, contributing family work, casual paid employment or temporary (non-casual) labour. Nine in ten young workers remain in informal employment.”
Globally “the youth unemployment rate has been consistently close to three times that of the adult unemployment rate since 1995.”
In interviews from my book The Time of Youth: Work, Social Change, and Politics in Africa young people described the extemporaneous and precarious nature of their waithood lives: “desenrascar a vida” (to eke out a living) for Mozambicans; “débrouillage” (making do) for Senegalese, Tunisians and other Francophone speakers; or “just getting by” for South Africans and English speakers. This experience of improvisation, or “making it up as you go along,” entails a conscious effort to assess challenges and possibilities and plot scenarios conducive to the achievement of specific goals.
Increasingly this involves reacting and challenging the political and economic establishment. Some marginalised young people in Africa and Europe are joining Al-Qaeda, Al-Shabaab, and Boko Haram. Recently young Africans have been at the forefront of demonstrations and riots in Burkina Faso, South Africa and Congo-Brazzaville. In the Arab Spring, the Occupy Wall Street Movement, the Indignados Movement in Spain, the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong and the numerous street protests across many African and Latin American countries, young people were shouting: Enough!
Jobs matter, and the un- and under-employed generation is standing up for itself and confronting the status quo across the world. In the past year it has taken a key role in electoral politics in Britain, the US, Canada, Greece and Spain. Political marginalisation, social inequalities and economic crisis are pushing this generation into radical action.