Debunking myths of youth joblessness

As we repeatedly face the question of youth unemployment, it is tempting to fall back into victim-blaming – “young people are lazy, they are entitled, no wonder they cannot find work”.

These sentiments are expressed in various ways. Young people are thought to simply “sit on the side of the road” or they “turn down low-paying jobs because they expect higher wages”.

Such discourse perpetuates the myth that South African young people expect hand-outs and are not willing to find work.

Victim-blaming is easier than facing the structural nature of unemployment.

Research conducted by the Centre for Social Development in Africa (CSDA) at the University of Johannesburg on youth employment and unemployment experiences offers insight into the struggles that young people face in accessing the labour market.

The study involved 2 000 young people from vulnerable households who were participating in youth employability programmes, and provides the evidence to debunk some of these common myths.

Contrary to the idea that young people are lazy and that they simply sit on the side of the road are the findings from the study that point to their incredible resilience and agency in seeking work.

As many as 91% of the participants had attained Grade 12, despite the odds being stacked against them.

The bulk of these young people came from poor households where food insecurity was expressed as an ongoing challenge.

Typically young people from poor backgrounds struggle to access higher education, as the #FeesMustFall protests have highlighted.

Despite this, 42.9% of participants had completed some form of post-secondary education.

More than a third of these acquired a National Diploma and 44% obtained an occupational certificate.

This advances the notion that these young people, far from being lazy, are beating the odds.

Further opposing the idea that young people are lazy is the finding that participants continued to search for employment despite ongoing joblessness – 73% had experienced chronic unemployment (being unemployed for longer than one year).

Over 80% of those who were unemployed at the time of the study were actively seeking work.

They had made, on average, two to three job applications per month in the three months preceding the study.

This was despite the repeated rejection and the high costs they incurred in doing so.

The average transport and non-transport cost of work-seeking was R938 per month – an amount that far exceeds their monthly per capita household income of R527 per month.

Participants also remained optimistic about their prospects of finding work, strongly believing that they possessed the ability to change their futures.

This paints a picture of young people who are remarkably hopeful and resilient in the face of chronic unemployment, a very different representation when compared with images of hopelessness and indolence portrayed in the media.

Another common myth is that young people feel they are entitled.

Linked to this concept of entitlement is the idea that young people have unrealistically high reservation wages (the lowest wage an individual will be willing to work for).

This is often touted as a key reason for youth unemployment.

The CSDA’s research points to a somewhat different reality. While young people in the study had relatively high expectations of what a fair wage would be, given their skills and experience, around R7 423, they probably priced in the significant costs that they were experiencing with job-seeking – most of which would need to be repaid once they started working – as well as the debt incurred for their post-secondary education.

However, when asked about the lowest wage they would be willing to work for, they typically indicated a monthly average wage only slightly higher than average wages for their age group.

Most importantly, when participants of focus groups were probed further about the lowest wage they would be willing to work for, many in fact indicated that they would be willing to work for less than sectorally determined minimum wages.

Most young people in fact indicated that they would not reject a job, regardless of the wage offered.

There was a widespread belief that they ought to take whatever job they could, given the low probability of another offer being made.

This suggests that while young, unemployed people have a reservation wage in mind, this does not necessarily translate into their job-seeking behaviour.

This finding brings into question whether the high levels of unemployment among young people can, in part, be attributed to high reservation wages.

The pathway to employability and work for these research participants is staggered, often leaving talented, ambitious, optimistic and educated young people locked out of the labour market altogether.

This represents a loss of human capital and resources to the economy and wider society.

While popular discourses often place the blame for youth unemployment at the feet of young people themselves, our research paints a picture of driven, relatively well-educated, optimistic young people who are eager to find their first jobs, and break themselves and their households out of poverty.

The findings point to the structural nature of unemployment, but also to the need for services that will support young people to potentially unlock their talents and capabilities.

While this would be beneficial in and of itself, it will in turn support the wider economy and society over time.

. Professor Graham is associate professor and deputy director of the Centre for Social Development in Africa at the University of Johannesburg


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