Gwen Ngwenya: The tyranny of ‘the youth’
It is Youth month, and once again politicians and representatives of the youth will deliver platitudes that are thin on substance. Phrases such as ‘the youth are the future’, ‘the youth must be heard’, and ‘the youth must be represented’ have become tyrannical clichés: their truth seemingly absolute and seldom questioned.
The youth are the future
“The youth are the future” is quite likely the most hackneyed of truisms, and almost always relayed with optimism. Yet, it is a biological reality that from Mesopotamian warfare in 2700 BC to the present, every generation which has brought about oppression, plunder and despair was at some point young, innocent and fresh-faced.
There is no inherent reason to suppose that young people today hold the keys to a brighter and better world. The future must be forged by as many of us as possible in the present. Not only do the young have no superior claim to morality and integrity, but also the “future” increasingly belongs to us all.
Youth, according to several international organisations including the United Nations, are those aged between 14 and 24; of course, South Africa’s infantilism defines youth up to the age of 35. Irrespective of the definition, many young people will pass away tomorrow while others older than them will live on. Many young people will not be the future, while their elders will be.
Speaking at a Virtual Futuresevent in London last year Aubrey de Grey, SENS Research Foundation co-founder, said that he believed that the first person to live to 1 000 years old had already been born, and that unlocking the age problem is within our reach within the next 20 years. Now that may or may not happen, but what has already happened, and can be observed, is that people are living longer than they did. Those who are presently aged 36 and older (i.e. not youth) will likely, and in more numbers than in the past, be alive 10, 20, and 50 years from now. Is that not the future?
At a superficial level everyone who will be alive tomorrow is the future, but more meaningfully surely everyone who will likely be alive in 10-50 years’ time and beyond has an equal stake in the future? That includes millions of people currently above the age of 25 or 35, depending on the definition. Far be it from anyone then to pronounce whom the future is or is not.
The youth are not heard
Kholekile Mnisi, who describes himself as a youth activist, wrote in the Mail & Guardian earlier this year that “African youths need to make their voices heard”. And he must be commended for making use of the platform to be heard. Minister in the Presidency Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma repeated this call regarding the issue of expropriation without compensation. “We must hear your views on this matter, you must be heard,” she said at the launch of Youth Month 2018.
In parliament alone, there are two committees which deal with youth issues, there is a youth parliament which sits in the month of June, and young people are often invited to observe and sometimes make submission to parliament’s varied work. In spite of this, many would say the youth are not sufficiently heard.
This is not a particularly South African phenomenon. An advertisement of the 2018 European Youth Event proclaimed that it is a “unique opportunity for young Europeans to make their voices heard.” Upon closer inspection there is not very much that is unique about it, and in fact three such events have been held in the past. Nor is it the only opportunity where young Europeans can engage with the powers that be. The European Youth Parliament has been in existence since 1987 and is now present in over 40 countries hosting approximately 600 events per year. So, if a young European does not make their voice heard at this “unique” opportunity afforded by the Youth Event, there seem to be hundreds of other “unique” opportunities to be heard. Again, I am sure that many young Europeans feel that they are not heard enough.
Pray tell is there any section of society that would admit to being heard “enough”. Which group has ever lobbied to be heard less? Could it be that the youth are heard plenty, and that when a group demands to be heard what they are in fact demanding is that their recommendations be implemented? But should young people’s ideas and suggestions be taken up merely because they are a constituency, or should they be taken up on their merits?
Does the merit of the argument for, say free higher education, change depending on the age of the proponent? The consequence of taking this constituency approach – as opposed to merit-based approach – to ideas is that when ideas are not used then young people get the message that they need to be louder or increase their arguments, instead of improving the quality of the argument.
The youth must be represented
The bias towards youth has consequences both grave and trivial. Trivially it gives rise to inane maxims, more gravely it can lead to policy blind spots. While youth unemployment enjoys prominence in economic thinking, research and policymaking in South Africa, the challenges faced by the elderly, older workers and older unemployed are given scant attention. However, given average life expectancy there is no reason to suppose the unemployed 45-year-old is not going to be around tomorrow and 30 years from now.
The youth lobby in many countries, including South Africa, enjoys greater representation than the elderly. The Society for Late Adulthood is not constantly heard on radio, television and in parliament. That’s because it does not exist; nor do I frequently come across any other groups representing only the interests of adults aged 50-65, who might quite rightly argue that they face challenges not experienced by the 35-49 cohort. It is unclear to me whether a lobby focused on an older age cohort would be beneficial, but it seems almost inevitable given our fragmentation into an increasing number of identity groups each jostling for recognition of their unique disadvantage.
According to the latest Global Age Watch Index South Africa ranks 78th out of 96 countries in the world in terms of its capacity to cater to the population over the age of 60. So surely somewhere a pensioner is staking out their claim to disadvantage i.e. the ageism of South African society.
For now, the figure at the apex of the advantage pyramid is the ‘straight white male’. The young white urban male is supposedly public enemy numero uno. But if you are my age (between 15 and 35) his youth alone is not threatening - yet. For now, all the young hold a monopoly of disadvantage over the old, and the future is for the virile not the senile.
Why do so few recognise the ridiculous end game? It is this: in the end the youth claim their right to fair representation, along with black South Africans, women, the disabled, the elderly etc. These calls can only collectively be met by a statistical programme that will provide a representative sample of the population for each organisation, business and forum. It simply will never organically occur. It will not occur because it is arbitrary to suppose that when people freely make choices about their own lives, according to their talents and efforts, that the result everywhere and anywhere will mirror the demographics of the country they are living in.
What we can hope to achieve is fair and reasonable opportunity. I do not say “all” we can achieve or what we can “merely” achieve, because the goal of equal opportunity is no less radical a pursuit than equality of outcomes. There are myriad obstacles that privilege one over another, and to dream of a society where we all behold an open field, held back only by our desires and natural talents is a lofty ideal indeed. And it will require just as concerted a fight against entrenched interests as the fight for outcomes. But I hope that it will leave people free to run in their own direction, not herded like cattle into representative pens. In a society with reasonably equal opportunities for young and old, do young people make up 70 percent or 30 percent of CEOs? In principle neither number should be right or wrong. If freedom is valued then the morality lies in the availability of choice, not the choice made.
The challenge for all people, regardless of their age, is to think holistically about the world not in silos, to demand to be assessed on the quality of their work not their biological features, and to fight for freedom of opportunity (a fight not won by any stretch) and not for equal representation. DM
Gwen Ngwenya is head of the DA’s Federal Policy Unit and a member of parliament.