Youth must prove their mettle in the race for jobs

Jobseekers in Nairobi. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

There’s a damning thing one can get in a school report, the old ‘A for effort’, meaning we really tried, but the results were actually awful.

But what do we do in life with ‘A for effort’?

Personally, I drew my share of report cards commenting on how hard I was trying because they couldn’t speak to how good my results were, but once I stepped into the world of work, everything changed.

Then, no one was kind about effort. As it was, I went into a competitive profession in becoming a journalist, and my work always went straight to another in the news production line, be it to an editor, or for page sign-off.

In this, no one cared about my personal sensibilities, or motivation, in making sure that copy arrived on time and didn’t leave a last-minute hole in a news page, that the facts were correct, and that the context was on point.


In fact, there was just a little leeway around the quality of writing – that could be edited. But if no story arrived once it had been agreed, or if it was late, or if it was wrong, you could be ‘out’ immediately.

Indeed, I remember one talented sub-editor who misnamed a politician in a photo caption. He had been on a fast track to promotion, but was pushed backwards for nearly a decade as a result of that one error. Others just got fired.

So tough was the performance culture that we had sayings like: ‘If you can’t cook, get out of the kitchen’, or ‘Don’t give up your day job’, which means ‘this work is so poor you couldn’t earn a salary for it’.

Now, we all joke about how old people start to talk about, ‘ahh, when I was young, we had it tough’. So maybe I am just being an oldie here. But the fact remains that the world of work and the needs of employers haven’t changed as I have got older.

Indeed, in Kenya, in the current economic climate, they are as tough as it can get. It’s hard to win work, hard to get paid for work, but hardest of all to get prices that cover costs. So when those costs are mostly staff, performance doesn’t matter as much as ever, it matters more than ever.

Yet Kenya, like everywhere, is now working home to the millennial generation, and unlike everywhere else, they actually dominate, by virtue of our rapid population growth, with half of our population below the age of 19.

Thus, elsewhere, there is still a mix that includes older staff. Indeed, I notice powerfully how many Western industries are running these days on aging staff. Western airlines have notably aged air hostesses. The BBC’s domestic UK service has a lot more older presenters than the Kenyan equivalent. All the growth sectors of the last 50 years are staffed by much older people in the West and much younger people in Kenya.

So the millenial factor that employers have reported everywhere is exacerbated in Kenya. And the millenial generation genuinely is different to its predecessors, report the scientists. Our move away from books and conversations to short messages has affected humanity’s attention span. The younger generation has a much shorter attention span – in fact, apparently, we all do, but the change is most pronounced in our under-30s.

Millenials are also more narcissistic, show studies: the ‘what’s in it for me’ generation. But that may pass. Science now shows that the frontal lobe of the brain that drives responsibility and caution and suchlike isn’t fully formed until 25 years of age, which would anyway skew results on this younger generation around issues of egotism and entitlement.

But this much is true: there will be two cadres that emerge from this rising generation. Those who work at their performance and expect to be judged by it. And those who remain forever stuck wanting to be congratulated because they tried but the output was poor.

The performance chasers will be the hot property. The ‘A for effort’ will live some very bumpy decades ahead, depending on the degree of charity they can find in this world.