The Daily Vox: Is the ‘sad generation’ really the future of South Africa? (Unemployment)

The Daily Vox: Is the ‘sad generation’ really the future of South Africa? (Unemployment)

An article on unemployment by former SPII Research Intern Lehlohlonolo Fortune Kekana

Not so long ago, Statistics South Africa released the latest labour market figures that placed the unemployment rate at an all-time high since the 2008 recession. Youth unemployment is at a staggering 43.2%. While a tertiary education remains a golden ticket into the working world, unemployment among university graduates rose to one in every ten. 

Shocking as this information may sound, this comes as no surprise.  This is considering the devastating effects of the Covid-19 pandemic to the economy coupled with an inefficient response from the government. Ironically, in a society where young people are considered to be the future of a prosperous economy, the youth find themselves being most affected by unemployment. With such disheartening facts, one really wonders if the youth of this country are really the future and key to a thriving economy.

This is something that affects the youth the most, with no apparent solutions in sight. It is without doubt that a lot of young people are giving up on the prospects of finding employment and education because of the actions and inactions of the government.

There is so much hopelessness governing the youth today to a point where they are even referred to as the ‘sad generation’, that ever achieving a decent standard of living seems like a stretch. Their motivation is fleeting and disappearing daily while being haunted by mental health problems. The journey to adulthood has become even more difficult with the absence of jobs.

When slicing up the data on youth unemployment, numerous reasons pop-up as to why young people are hit the hardest with regards to unemployment. Most importantly, these are some of the facts that are well documented.


If we look at the structure of the labour market itself, the argument cutting across socio-political research demonstrates that the labour market, to a larger extent, does not encourage inclusive participation. In other words, only people with the combination of the required skill sets, experience and educational background can participate. These requirements are mutually inclusive, especially in the formal sector, because one might have the necessary educational background but lack the required work experience and still not fit the criteria for participation. Thus one needs to possess all the requirements in order to be absorbed by the labour market.

Considering the disruptions in education due to financial constraints as a result of the farcical costs of education, it is often difficult for young people to obtain the required education to become eligible to participate in the labour market. This is something that was reflected in the Fees Must Fall movement. It is a sad reality that when young people reach the age of 22, more than half of that population are no longer engaged in education, training, or are unemployed.

Couple this with the fact that a lot of employers are not open minded when it comes to hiring young people with no industry experience. It begs the question of how young people are supposed to get the required industry experience. At some point in the course of every employed individual’s career, they had no industry experience up until they got their first job.

If anything, this should only apply for senior positions instead of entry-level roles. Young people are adaptable and eager to learn, and can be molded and shaped into any role created for them. Taking a chance on an inexperienced youth is a gamble worth taking for the guarantee of a society that offers its citizens opportunities, as well as the ability to churn out employees that are fit for purpose.

So, why the hesitation? Could this hesitation be a sign of disregard to the abilities and capabilities of the youth by the government? Perhaps that is exactly what it is, a lack of trust and foresight by government into the benefits of investing in youth for a prosperous economy.

For the few that manage to be absorbed by the labour market, they go on to experience negative working environments that create or add to existing mental health problems, such as anxiety. As a result, people feel discouraged to continue working or to return to the labour market. This is an issue that is not well-documented. In addition to ‘toxic’ working environments there is an issue of learnerships or internships that offer their professionals/interns income that is less than the national average starting salary for graduates. In most cases, this is an amount that only covers transport fees. This highlights how much graduates are undervalued and exposed to structural inequality from the onset.

The current issues that the so-called “sad generation” of this country are faced with act as a ceiling blocking any prospects of a prosperous future, not only for young people but for our country. This does not bode well with any attempts to recover our economy in the long run.

We must provide unemployed youth with a safety net that can allow them to actively search for employment without being constrained by the lack of resources to do so.  Job-seeking is an activity that requires money, something that often demotivates people from applying for jobs because  of its unavailability.

Interventions like the basic income grant can place young people in a position to seek employment, and also venture out into entrepreneurial activities that can empower them to source out their own incomes from the informal sector. Thus, creating employment opportunities in the future. Radical innovative solutions are what we need for the future of our youth, as well as the economy.

Lehlohonolo Kenana is a research intern at the Studies in Poverty and Inequality Institute. He is an Anthropology graduate at the University of Johannesburg.