JOHANNESBURG – I remember when I was in matric with dreams of having a house, a car and a family by the time I was 25.
But once I got my first foot on the corporate ladder, I quickly realised that as a young person, real opportunities that would allow me to achieve my goals were hard to come by. I found it difficult to make myself heard in meetings where age equalled knowledge and wisdom.
One’s opinions aren’t valued if you have neither. Your inexperience counts against you and you are judged on your age and not by the quality of your content.
So youth can seemingly be an impediment to success. Society is mistrustful and disbelieving of young entrepreneurs who struggle to open doors in financial institutions and in the search for a market for their ideas.
“Old” South Africa does not afford them any credibility and judges not their talent but their youth. Was it too far-fetched to hope for a younger Cabinet? What if there was someone under the age of 35 with a PhD in finance, some experience and a lot of talent - could they ever be in the running to be a finance minister? Or is that a step too far?
If we are to address the balance of youth versus experience, we need a fundamental mind-shift. Those in power (whether in government or business) might have more experience, but youthful creativity and perspective are also needed to give representation to the young people of our country.
The insight of the youth is needed to grow the economy, especially since we represent the majority of the continent’s consumers, but much of the decision-making still lies with the older generation.
In all the discussions leading up to the recent elections, one of the biggest issues was that of youth unemployment. But the question is, where was youth’s voice to be heard?
We need to be part of the solution. We need a platform to discuss and affect changes in the political space as well as in corporate South Africa. We live in a world where new, young and disruptive companies have challenged our thinking - from Facebook to Uber. Young minds have created solutions that have changed the world as we see it, but here at home do we give the same support and backing to our own youth?
Maybe if Kodak had a young person on its board back then, it might have seen a different future for the company. Instead, like a dinosaur, it is now extinct. We have fought for black economic empowerment and inclusion, we have fought to elevate women into leadership roles, but we have never advocated for youth to take their place in all structures of society, from the boardroom to the Union Buildings.
We are not calling to replace experience, but balance is everything and the views and voices of youth are much-needed in management structures. Without this change, the perpetual cycle of old governance and management will remain entrenched, and today’s young people will only be heard when they themselves are no longer young.
We need not only to window dress with young people, but to change the youth narrative, giving them a platform to succeed and reach their full potential. Give them the skills and experience they require and the respect they need in order for them to achieve at the top.
Youth has the capacity to shape and influence culture and business. We are the custodians of the future and it’s time we give more young people a seat in boardrooms, the Cabinet and other positions of power where they effect change.
Give a young person a chance to write an opinion piece on a big publication, give him a voice to speak his mind because he may change other minds and change the narrative.
Give that young matriculant the hope and belief that even by 25 he can be achieving the goals he set and not be held back by a lack of confidence based on age.
Including youth at the heart of the economy gives an entire generation a voice and the belief they can change the world for the better.
I have always loved the quote “If only youth knew, if only age could” and this balance and combination of youth and experience for me is what we should be looking for to grow the economy and to include more young people in its development.
Siyabonga Zungu is brand manager at Proudly South African. The views expressed here are his own.