Class system: A group of youngsters in Langa, Cape Town, relax against a wall bearing a painting of Steve Biko.  Picture: DAILY DISPATCH
Class system: A group of youngsters in Langa, Cape Town, relax against a wall bearing a painting of Steve Biko. Picture: DAILY DISPATCH

WITH Youth Day having been celebrated this week, at a time when the economy is in the state it is, I cannot help but be reminded of the increasing role that today's young people will play in driving economic growth.

They are the leaders of tomorrow who must be groomed today. They will be responsible for ensuring that our businesses and institutions are led in ways that will help us revive growth and achieve the long-term goals of the country.

They will also need to learn how to become the kind of leaders who understand how to build an economy that creates opportunities for the youth, especially when all the numbers show that Africa will have the world's biggest and youngest population of working age within a few decades. This is something we need to turn into an advantage, rather than a disadvantage.

We have not yet learnt how to enable our young people to start playing a bigger role in the economy. This is a puzzle that needs to be solved, otherwise we risk losing out on the value they could be adding to the country.

We can start by shifting how we perceive the experience and expertise of our youth. Much of the conversation is focused on how we should be giving people a chance to have even a year of formalised work experience, because this will significantly increase their chances of employability and inclusion in the formal economy.

Let us rather shift the conversation towards what we can learn from them based on their life experiences. Despite not having worked in the formal sector, many inspiring young people have achieved a lot on their own - learning far more than they would have learnt in a formal job.

We need to stop discounting the value of this informal learning - the street smarts you get from having hustled outside the formal work and schooling environment. Our township economy thrives on this. The world's most respected school dropouts succeeded because they leveraged this informal learning effectively.

There is a ton of learning that takes place in these environments, but it is completely discounted when employees in the formal economy look at the CVs of job hunters.

As someone who has received the best of what the world has to offer in terms of formal higher education and work experience, I cannot help but note that, despite this, half of my expertise to date stems from my experience of having been an informal entrepreneur in my youth, leading projects which, at the time, were critical for survival in a poor community. Today, those experiences help me navigate the most complex of business problems. I use them to upskill those who did not have a chance to gain much informal learning because they grew up with everything formalised around them.

Let us start giving a chance to those who have not had access to formal opportunities but who have learnt much from having spent their lives thriving in informal settings, earning their street smarts.

In our country there are many inspiring young people who have been forced to look after large families long before they became adults.

Someone like that has learnt a lot about responsibility, probably far more than those who have eaten from a silver spoon all their lives.

These informally strong leaders are the kind of people this country needs, especially if we are serious about allowing different points of view to inform how we govern.

The old ways are clearly failing us, and the world is changing faster every day.

Futurists are talking about how we need to start a process of unlearning the old ways, which are no longer relevant in a world that is rapidly transforming.

We need to rewire our brains, and a good start would be to focus on informal learning.

We need those streets smarts to bring in fresh ways of thinking and the boldness that will challenge long-standing systems and processes that no longer work.

It is worth noting that part of the success of the youth of 1976 came from defying what was the norm then; how they thrived by leaning on informal channels of leadership, communication and co-ordination - all this in an environment in which their formal education systems were impaired.

Today we celebrate them.

But how about celebrating the youth of today who are trying to adopt the same mentality in order to succeed?

There are young people out there we need to open our doors for.

We need to do so if we are serious about finding new ways to revive growth.

Sikhakhane is a global speaker and business strategist on leadership, entrepreneurship and doing business in Africa, with an MBA from Stanford University

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