In this opinion piece, Arc Skills Group CEO, Mithun Kamath, states that with the right skills, South Africa, the second-largest economy on the African continent, is a land of opportunities waiting to be seized by young people.
The United Nations (UN) marked International Youth Day on 12 August 2019, and the initiative reminds us of just how vital it is that young people are equipped to help build the sustainable, inclusive and stable societies we want them to inherit.
1.2 billion young people aged 15 to 24 years, who make up 16% of the global population, are the future of our world. However, young people are almost three times more likely to be unemployed than adults, the work available to them is frequently less secure, and the transition from education to employment can often be a long and difficult process.
South Africa’s unemployment rate in Q2 2019 grew by 1.4% to 29%, but even this is dwarfed by youth unemployment (for persons aged 15-24), which reached 56.4% in the second quarter, and is now the highest in the world. Understandably, analysts are describing the scale of youth unemployment as a national crisis. President Cyril Ramaphosahas used the exact same phrase when considering the gravity of a situation where four out of 10 young people have no job.
Ensuring that we drive youth unemployment down is vital in South Africa, given the disproportionately large social burden resting on the next generation’s shoulders from the country’s ageing population. According to the WHO’s World Report on Ageing and Health, the proportion of South Africa’s population aged 60 years or older will double from 7.7% to 15.4% of the country’s total population over the next 30 years. This will put an ever-growing burden of care on today’s young people, whilst placing an ever-greater reliance on tax revenues generated by those young people who are in work.
Compounding matters, as we prepare to enter the third decade of the 21st century, today’s school leavers face a job market that is being altered beyond recognition by the inexorable march of AI and automation. A new report released in June found that the number of robots in use worldwide has increased three-fold over the past two decades, to 2.25 million, and this is expected to multiply even faster over the next two decades to reach 20 million by 2030.
Since 2004, each new industrial robot installed in the manufacturing sector displaced an average of 1.6 workers from their jobs. What’s worse is that in developed economies, it is their less-developed regions that are being hit hardest by automation. As such, we might imagine that inequality in South Africa might worsen for the next generation if we do not take the challenge of automation seriously and act now to ensure young people are skilled to face the world of work they hope to enter.
Indeed, research by Accenture last year found 35% of all jobs in South Africa — almost 5.7 million — are at risk of total automation. The report noted grimly, ’With a fragile economy and growing unemployment, especially youth unemployment, further job losses in South Africa could have a crippling effect.’
Automation is just one of the many challenges young South Africans will need to be adaptable enough to prepare for. Climate change is increasing the frequency of extreme weather events and is forcing millions of people from their homes around the world. Tomorrow’s workers need to be sufficiently flexible and skilled so that they can work anywhere in the country or even the world.
For young people to be able to adapt to the new realities, it’s vital that they are skilled to move with the increasing pace of change. The education system needs to produce fully formed, creative, engaged, critically-thinking human beings with the capacity not just to adapt and survive in the fast-changing world of work, but thrive in it.
South Africa’s schools must extend the thirst for knowledge beyond textbooks and traditional academic subjects to teach young people skills such as self-management, communication, collaboration and problem-solving. These will be vital, no matter what changes occur in the job market, or what new challenges or opportunities emerge, and will serve well the next generation of South Africans for the rest of their lives. With the right skills, South Africa, the second-largest economy on the continent, is a land of opportunities waiting to be seized by young people.
When equipped to do so, the challenges faced by young South Africans can be converted into opportunities. New technologies may threaten many jobs we see today, but they will also create exciting new jobs and even entire industries in which those adept and adaptable enough to embrace them can work. Similarly, tackling climate change will itself produce new horizons for today’s youth with rapidly expanding renewable energy and green technology sectors acting as drivers of future jobs growth. And with a great education, we can also grow the scientific and political minds who may yet solve the biggest threats to our planet.
The future of South Africa, and our planet rests on the shoulders of our children. This is the world we are giving them and the choices our generation has made means this can be a heavy burden. It is too late to change that. But what we can and must do today is ensure our children are strong enough to carry it.