OPINIONPeople Daily

To reap demographic dividend, listen to youth

Tony Reilly

As heads of State and leaders of 53 Commonwealth countries gather in London this week for the Commonwealth Summit, it is worth remembering that one in three of the world’s 1.8 billion young people aged between 15 and 29 live in a Commonwealth country.

More than 60 per cent of the Commonwealth’s population of 2.4 billion is aged 29 or under. In sub-Saharan Africa, host to 19 Commonwealth countries, from founder member South Africa to newest members Mozambique and Rwanda – 77 per cent of the population is under 35.

The Commonwealth Summit in London provides a unique platform for the voices of young people across the Commonwealth to be heard.

Here in Kenya, where more than one in five Kenyans are between 15 and 24 years of age and Kenya’s population of 48 million today is set to double to 100 million by 2050, the British Council is launching fresh research on the hopes, fears and aspirations of young Kenyans in the Next Generation Kenya Report.

The Next Generation Kenya Report finds Kenya’s youth highly aspirational, deeply passionate about their country and eager to contribute to its future. Ninety one per cent of those interviewed in a national household survey conducted by Ipsos say they love their country.

Like young people around the world, they hold strong views and are keen for their opinions to be heard, heeded, and more importantly, acted upon. They are a generation anxious to use their talents, creativity and entrepreneurial drive to propel Kenya’s economy to new heights, and at the same time, build a more inclusive and equitable future for all.

While 62 per cent of young people believe their generation’s lives are better than those of their parent’s generation, 81 per cent see their future in Kenya while 71 per cent said they would be willing to relocate to other countries in search of better opportunities.

Kenya’s Next Generation is, however not without fears and concerns. They are lucid in articulating the challenges young people have to navigate in order to exercise their agency.

Education, the most powerful tool we have to change our world, as Nelson Mandela reminded us, is seen as a vital necessity for the Next Generation in Kenya.

And yet, there are grave concerns that the education young people are accessing in increasingly large numbers, may be falling short in equipping them with the skills, knowledge and behaviours needed to thrive in the 21st Century.

Employment and under-employment preoccupy the Next Generation. Seventy per cent of young people fortunate to have found work find themselves in precarious and low-quality jobs. Pervasive corruption, and what young people describe as a “broken system”, is felt to be holding back their promise and potential.

The Next Generation expresses discomfort about being forced to perpetuate a system based on patronage. Violence and gender inequality are also thwarting their progress.

Above all, Kenya’s Next Generation are crying out for greater support in helping them chart a brighter future for a country they are both passionate about, and deeply committed to.

Africa has been called the last young continent. As the Next Generation Kenya report makes abundantly clear, Kenya has a unique window of opportunity to harness what demographer David E Bloom has called a demographic dividend: a burst of prosperity, lasting a decade or more, brought on by the creativity, talent and energy of so many young people, entrepreneurs and productive workers.

Countries like Kenya can reap this dividend if government policies have prepared the country’s workforce with the proper education, infrastructure, and policies to fulfil their potential.

Bloom argues that “demography isn’t destiny”. Governments have the power to seize the moment. Kenya’s youth are ready to use their agency to realise this potential, to harness a youth dividend.

Listening to the voices of young people is crucial if Kenya is to avoid the flip side, and far less palatable scenario, of a demographic disaster.

No-one wants to see the most educated, talented, globally connected and optimistic generation ever, have their hopes squandered through lack of opportunity – leading to growing resentment and diversion of their energy into more destructive, destabilising activities.

Kenya’s aspirational Next Generation is crying out to steer their country towards a brighter and more equitable future. In commissioning this Next Generation Kenya Research, the British Council is renewing its commitment to work with young people, partners and stakeholders across Kenya, to support the changes being called for by Kenya’s passionate Next Generation and to press for policies that harness the full potential of Kenya’s Next Generation. —The writer is the country director, British Council of Kenya

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