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Africa's Great Generation

Rapid urbanization and a young population is the challenge of a century

periodiCALS, Vol. 7, Issue 1, 2017

Professor Parfait Eloundou-Enyegue, Chair, Department of Development Sociology
Professor Parfait Eloundou-Enyegue, Chair, Department of Development Sociology 

This century, African families will raise the largest generation of children in the continent’s history. When Parfait Eloundou-Enyegue describes their experiences, he can deftly move from the big picture demographics—the projected increases in the number of births through the year 2100—to the personal challenges facing the members of this generation as they age. Among these are employment and inequality.

“If you are not employed, you can’t really take care of your family’s needs, and you’re not socially recognized as an adult in the full sense of the term,” explains Eloundou-Enyegue, who is professor and chair of development sociology. “Without a job and being out of school, you may lack a clear social identity, and you absorb and blame yourself for something that is actually a structural problem.”

Many in this generation are trapped in social adolescence until their 30s or longer.

“It’s not for lack of wanting to work or not having done the right thing for many years, but they are not finding jobs, and that’s not their fault,” he says.

The dilemma of youth unemployment across Africa is complex. Officially, youth unemployment in sub-Saharan Africa is estimated to average 14 percent. But this figure masks vast under-employment, and the potent combination of urbanization and a youth population expansion is just warming up. Nearly 70 percent of the African population is under 30, and by 2020 Africa is predicted to be home to 24 of the world’s 30 fastest growing cities. The current generation of youth is already expected to be great in a demographic sense. The question is whether it can also achieve historical greatness.

“It’s going to be a rough half-century, I think, for many countries in the region,” Eloundou-Enyegue cautions. “Not in the sense that you’re not going to have economic growth. But that you’re going to have very uneven growth and a perfect storm of inequality.”

Eloundou-Enyegue points out that unemployment, inequality, and disillusionment become a source of frustration that can be tapped by groups including gangs and rebel militias, but that personal frustration and despair can also lead to drinking, drug use, and petty crime. As a sociologist, he suggests that a root of the problem is the lack of social infrastructure when youths aren’t part of one of the three core institutions of family, school, or work.

“The institution of family itself is a safeguard against all sorts of deviant behavior and offers a level of social protection,” Eloundou-Enyegue says. “Or if you are in school, by virtue of being really busy, it really limits the options for disruptive behavior. The third node is work. So what is happening in African countries is that you have a lot of kids outside these three institutions and falling through the cracks.”

In his research, Eloundou-Enyegue seeks to find programmatic answers that offer hope, security, and identity to urban youths during their transition into work. In December, he received a grant to do that from the U.S.-based Minerva Initiative, which funds research in the social sciences to foster global security. The project starts with a fundamental question.

“What do you do with kids short of providing for their employment?” he says. “If countries cannot immediately find good jobs for everybody, what palliatives can be used to maintain hope, while gradually integrating recent graduates into the economy and society?”

To answer these questions, he and several collaborators are launching a study in Cameroon to follow a cohort of adolescents as they leave school, for an initial period of three years. They will be randomly enrolled in a variety of social programs, and tracking their progress will allow the team to identify programs that can be most successful in helping these youths make the jump from school and adolescence to work and adulthood.

“In a broader sense, such programs, if successful and applied on a large scale,” Eloundou-Enyegue reflects, “could help this generation make the jump from demographic to historical greatness.”