Friday, July 1 2022

It’s June, which means it’s Youth Month. But young South Africans are often misunderstood and generalizations tend to abound. So let me suggest something specific: don’t assume that young South Africans are millennials.

In recent years, the term “millennial” has become a popular way of describing South African youth. It’s in opinion pieces after opinion pieces and in government statistics.

Young South Africans are not millennials, at least not as the term is understood in the United States, where it originated from. This category refers to economic factors, generational lineages and historical circumstances, which do not adequately correspond to the South African environment where inequalities and generational lineages are shaped by race and apartheid heritage.

The point I want to make is that young South Africans are misunderstood, so much so that generational differences are an underestimated problem. Although generational identities are imprecise, continuing to refer to them as millennia reflects this misunderstanding and the large generational divide in South Africa.

Let’s start with the millennial category: when does it start and end? According to the Pew Research Center, an American research-based think tank, the millennial refers to people born between 1981 and 1996. The Millennial Dialogue Project, part of the Foundation for European Progressive Studies, refers to people born between 1980 and 2000. And the Deloitte Global Millennial Survey, an annual report on the attitudes of millennials around the world, uses parameters from 1983 and 1994.

With these parameters in mind, the differences between a South African born in the early 80s and mid or late 90s are huge. It is true that being born at the beginning or at the end of a generational category has implications for individual perspectives and experiences.

In the South African context, these implications relate to growing up during the end of apartheid and the transition to democracy. These experiences are also strongly shaped by race. Such contrasts are in themselves sufficiently important to justify alternative categories.

There are certain characteristics that typically define millennials. According to the 2010 Pew Research Center Millennials report: Confid. Bound. Open to change, American millennials tend to be confident, liberal, and open-minded. They are considered the first “always-on” generation in history. And nearly 90% believe they will eventually reach their long-term financial goals, despite entering the workforce during the Great Recession of the late 2000s.

The 2019 Deloitte Global Millennial survey, which included 300 respondents from South Africa, gives us a broader view of the concerns of millennials. They are mainly focused on climate change (29%), income inequality (22%), unemployment (21%), crime (20%), corruption (20%), terrorism (19%) and political instability (18%).

These concerns and characteristics are somewhat reflected in South Africa. According to the Institute for Security Studies’ 2016 report, Do you want my vote ?, young South Africans are frustrated by socio-economic issues such as unemployment and corruption.

These factors lead to low levels of trust in government, as economic opportunities and individual trust are limited. They are also fed up with infrastructural inconsistencies affecting millennial traits such as hyperconnectivity.

Although Millennials are widely described as the first “always-on” generation, race and income determine access to technology despite increasing accessibility in South Africa.

Living in an urban or rural environment also influences access. The same goes for employment; black South Africans tend to be unemployed in much greater numbers than white South Africans.

Generational identities do not exist in isolation either. To refer to a millennium is to invoke earlier generational identities such as Generation X (born between the mid-1960s and early 1980s) and baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1964). We rarely see these categories invoked in South Africa.

Attempts to think of older South Africans as baby boomers are collapsing given the country’s turbulent history of racism and violence.

America’s baby boomers, who were born during a period of tremendous growth and prosperity after the end of World War II, hold great wealth in the United States and have the highest homeownership rate. raised. These figures are averages and do not illustrate differences in wealth and homeownership by race and income.

Such differences in a South African context are again so vast that alternative categories representing significant racial disparities are needed. The post-WWII boom in America came at the same time as white South African society sanctioned apartheid, leading to a boom in racial inequality. The legacy of this inequality contributes to the inadequacy of a category like the Millennial.

For example, as the baby boomer generation continues to age in the United States, the “great wealth transfer” is about to take place, when some $ 30 trillion is passed on to millennials. financial cushion allows millennials to be looked after by their parents or families in an emergency.

In South Africa, the reverse is largely true. Due to racial inequality, there is little wealth to be inherited. Many South Africans, especially blacks, do not have the luxury of being able to rely on their parents or family in an emergency. Instead, young South Africans – especially blacks – are often the sole breadwinners. This sets up a different dynamic: the ‘black tax’, where young black South Africans tend to support older or unemployed family members.

It is important to consider the role of generational differences in South Africa more broadly. While not discussed as often as it should be, South African history has tended to flip between generations.

One example is the formation of the ANC Youth League in 1944. Frustrated by passive appeals to colonial institutions and cadres, a generation of educated and urbanized young black South Africans worked to create an organization that enabled active modes of resistance , leading to a significant change in the way white supremacy was resisted.

Members of this generation spearheaded the creation of the Freedom Charter in 1955 and led the country through the transition to democracy.

A second example is that of the Soweto riots in 1976. After the politics of the black opposition were effectively neutralized in the early 1960s, national resistance to apartheid fell into a lull. When schoolchildren rose up against school instruction in Afrikaans, resistance to apartheid experienced a resurgence that continued into the 1980s.

A third example is that of demonstrations in universities in 2015 and 2016. Universities have always been places of struggle. But these protests represented a setback, if not a rejection, of the aspirations of the democratic project in South Africa announced by the same ANC members who started the Youth League.

This example suggests that the gap between older and younger South Africans is wider than we think and deserves more attention.

To be fair, there are similarities between millennials in the United States and so-called “millennials” in South Africa. Both cohorts are affected by broad national aspirations that do not correspond to reality. Moreover, despite the increase in educational levels, the evolution or stagnation of economies has affected people’s attitudes towards the future.

These similarities reflect a flattening of identities from a global perspective. But that flattening looks different on the ground in the United States and South Africa, reminding us of the influence of national history and societal contrasts.

If we do not understand the extent to which the wide gap between young and old South Africans is exerted on the social fabric, we run the risk of not being able to anticipate the big pivots. If we misunderstand young South Africans as ‘millennials’, we may not be able to do it.


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