Revolution! A word many African leaders have traditionally shunned and been afraid of is one they may need to embrace as the world’s youngest continent enters the digital age.
It is my humble submission, nay, strong suggestion that to turn the twin challenges of job scarcity for African youth and its skills inadequacies into opportunity, we need a revolutionary approach to many of the continent’s education systems with the assistance of the private sector.
We have an advantage. This upcoming generation are digital natives. The whole notion of going digital is foreign to them, simply because they are born digital, their thinking is already digital. Even in the most rural of places on the continent, children are becoming exposed to technology, even in the most rudimentary of forms.
Their uptake of the digital ecosystem and its associated products or services is much more seamless than that of the older generation, which tend to be laggards. This naturally means that the new generation tends to be at ease in working around the mobility and fast-paced nature of digital. Working anywhere, anytime and collaboratively is the norm for this generation. Therefore, the Fourth Industrial Revolution poses exciting opportunities for them. However, they do need to be actively and systematically skilled for the future of digital.
To do that, we need to overhaul our education systems and this needs to start from early childhood development. This means, of course, that academic institutions and governments have a central role to play in relooking at the curriculum from pre-school through to tertiary levels. Many companies are of the opinion that most graduates are not equipped to enter a new work environment and make a meaningful contribution. Literacy is not enough anymore. There is a need to tap the youth for their “out of the box” thinking. In most educational systems, allowing the mind to wander yonder is seen as being ill-disciplined. The idea is to strike the right balance of creativity and rigour in their approach to new projects.
Training institutions in Africa, although behind the curve, have started and some are starting to reassess their curriculum, finding new ways of learning in order to maximise the benefits of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the digital economy.
It is also vital that we involve the private sector in this root and branch change. As stakeholders and beneficiaries of a skilled workforce, the private sector has a pivotal role in assisting with funding access to technology for those poor schools, which are inadequately resourced, providing bursaries, offering internships and mentorship, investing in research and development, and the list is endless. Equally, they can play a critical role in the upskilling of the youth.
The African youth population is expected to peak before the end of the 21st century and will account for half of the world’s population of children under 18, according to UNICEF’s Generation 2030 Africa 2.0 report. As an African in the human resource space, I am encouraged by the opportunity these numbers hold for employment creation and poverty eradication.
While 2100 might seem a long while away, looking at the numbers in the UNICEF report, the reality is much closer to home—in 11 years i.e. 2030, Africa will have added 170 million children and by 2055, three-and-a-half decades away, the continent’s child population will reach one billion.
Maybe, to appreciate the advantage of Africa’s youth demographics, one simply has to look at some countries in Asia—Japan is a case in point. Saddled with an older population, which is growing in size, that nation certainly yearns for a younger population. A decline in labour productivity, increased healthcare demands and social security are just some of the headaches that the economy is dealing with. In contrast, with globalisation, Africa’s young people can provide a formidable workforce to support economies with ageing and declining populations.
At a global level, the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Development, the recently adopted Africa’s Agenda for Children 2040 and the African Union Agenda 2063 are discussing and intensifying the discourse around investments in children and youth and accelerated progress on social, economic and environmental development. But to what extent is this trickling down? This future scenario has to inform the short-, mid- and long-term strategy of every government department, from national to local, development organisations, NGOs and all businesses.
The prospects of creating a vibrant working and entrepreneurial generation are immense but require political resolve and business commitment. Of course, the youth dividend will not yield much if there is no clear socio-economic trust between business and the government, underpinned by a robust policy and enabling environment. This shift in the demographics of our continent needs focused leadership and cohesion to harness the potential of this youth bulge, from regional government, national government and trickling down to local government.
With a larger population, there are obvious gaps for job prospects, which include healthcare workers, teachers, farmers and staff services. The advancement of technology and easier access, increasing mobile penetration and Internet connectivity have brought disruptive technological changes, which are admittedly changing the future of the world of work.
The youth, now and in the future, are entering workspaces that need to be equipped differently in order to cope and be aligned with the new order. This means young people need to gain new employability skills.
Soft skills, essentially, human skills, have become paramount as, contrary to the current narrative, not all work will be automated. The skill set needs to be focused on adaptability, creativity, collaboration, empathy, leadership, resilience, self-awareness, diversity, an entrepreneurial mindset and critical thinking.
A mid- to long-term outlook, as opposed to short-termism, is required. Organisations will also have to rethink the composition of their workforce as the younger generation enters the workplace. Rigidity and conformity are out whilst fluidity and adaptability are in.
One is not oblivious to the obvious challenges posed by this youth bulge. Having considered these challenges, it is my view that the upside far outweighs the challenges.
Africa needs to be deliberate in terms of how it brings its youthful population into the centre of its economy.