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‘In South Africa we have 25% youth unemployment. Young people need streetwise skills, entrepreneurial skills, the ability to move in and out of work.’ – Brian Schreuder in Driving the skills agenda: Preparing students for the future (’An Economist Intelligence Unit report, sponsored by Google’)

Driving the Skills Agenda adopts human capital perspective which recommends education and ‘flexibility’ as the answer to high youth unemployment. This approach ignores the political origin of the problem and the human costs experienced by those who struggle to find work. Placing all of the burden on young people to adapt to a precarious existence privatizes a social problem that we all need to pay attention to.

In Waithood: Youth Transitions and Social Change (2014), Alcinda Honwana gives a name – waithood – to the experience of youth who are “no longer children in need of care, but … are still unable to become independent adults.” (19) In her analysis, they are “affected by the same ills created by globalization and failed neo-liberal policies that broke the social contract.” (26) Thus, Honwana explicitly rejects the idea that waithood represents a “failed transition on the part of the youth themselves,” (20) and she carefully documents the agency of the youth she interviewed in South Africa, Tunisia, Senegal, and Mozambique.


As educators, we must consider the wider global context of the so-called knowledge economy and hear the voices of those for whom globalization has not brought its promised opportunity.

Waithood represents the contradictions of modernity, in which young people’s opportunities and expectations are simultaneously broadened and constrained. They are enlarged by the new technologies of information and communication that make young people more globally integrated. Youth relate to local social structures and cultural patterns, but they are also connected to global culture via mobile telephones, cyberspace, television, and advertising. At the same time, they are also constrained by lack of access to basic resources due to unsound socio-economic policies, epidemics, political instability and repression. (24)

But while constrained, youth are not inactive:

Young people I interviewed showed strong awareness of the broader socio-economic and political environments that affect their lives. They are acutely conscious of their marginal structural position and they despise and rebel against the abuse and corruption that they observe as the elites in power get richer and they become poorer (Honwana 2012). These youths are not a ‘lost generation’ nor are they completely apathetic from what is going on in their societies (Diouf 2003). Young people in Mozambique, Senegal, South Africa and Tunisia feel deeply disconnected from those who control power and national politics. They are critical of unsound economic policies that focus on growth but do not enlarge the productive base by creating more jobs. (24)

The human capital narrative might work for those with enough privilege in life to make it seem true. But those who are most harshly affected by unsound policy know it isn’t and they aren’t patiently waiting for everyone else to figure it out.



According to the Economist’s report, Brian Schreuder is the “deputy director-general of Curriculum and Assessment Management at the Western Cape Education Department.”

Alcinda Honwana’s article originally appeared in: Development and Equity: An Interdisciplinary Exploration by Ten Scholars from Africa, Asia and Latin America, edited by Dick Foeken, Ton Dietz, Leo Haan and Linda Johnson.

Image credit: Stephanus Riosetiawan

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