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Good-for-nothings deserve opportunities

by Hans Dembowski


Youngsters protesting in Dhaka, the capital city of Bangladesh.

Youngsters protesting in Dhaka, the capital city of Bangladesh.

Ever since the Arab spring toppled the dictators Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak in early 2011, many governments have begun to worry about the consequences of young people not finding perspectives for their lives. It is true: masses of frustrated youth can undermine political stability.

While revolutions remain exceptions, however, the social costs of juvenile underemployment and unemployment are always high. Lack of income is one aspect. The youngsters depend on their relatives at a time when they would normally be expected to start contributing to their extended families’ livelihoods. Their self-esteem suffers when they cannot live up to such norms.

Some drift into crime and prostitution. Drugs and alcohol seem to offer a kind of comfort. Social ties are eroded. In big agglomerations all over the world, violent mafia gangs control disadvantaged neighbourhoods. They recruit youngsters for particularly dirty, brutal and dangerous tasks. The terror that organised crime means for wide segments of the people must never be underestimated. Unlike politicised violence, it is not aimed at institutions of government. Ideas of good governance and the rule of law, however, cannot take root where everyone knows how slumlords get their way and what kind of ties to political leaders they cultivate.

If a young person’s social inclusion fails early on, the damage normally cannot be undone later. Those who do not succeed in a job tend to be considered useless by others – and not only by potential employers. The impression is common that the persons concerned do not like work, and that they certainly lack discipline and reliability. Many societies believe that only good-for-nothings do not find jobs. The notion is less common that those, who are never given a job, never get a chance to prove their worth either.  

Youth unemployment is a serious challenge in advanced nations. In developing countries and emerging markets, however, there are no or only weak welfare-state programmes, and traditions mark societies more than they do in the rich world. Young people are expected to live up to conventional expectations and never speak up to their seniors. At the same time, it is obvious that those conventional expectations are becoming obsolete. Populations are growing, and there simply is not enough land for all village people to make a living on farms. Movies, pop music and the internet are spreading new ideas. New information technology is marking daily life, and young people are more comfortable with digital data and tools than their parents.

Millions of young people are facing the dilemma of being supposed to live up to traditional norms even though they cannot do so – and even though they find those very norms unconvincing. Many become susceptible to radical ideologies, fanatical identity politics and fundamentalist preaching.

Education can make a difference – if it conveys practically useful knowledge and skills or if it helps young people to better understand their society and their own situation. Learning by rote and curricula defined decades ago are worthless however. For obvious reasons, college graduates who cannot find work tend to be among the most frustrated. Unless private-sector enterprises provide adequate employment, many young people will not find a personal prospect. The least that needs to happen, however, is that these people are heard and their views taken into account.