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Empowering Disadvantaged Youth To Overcome Psychological Barriers To Success

  • 5 min read

Part of solving the youth unemployment crisis in South Africa, there are psychological barriers that need to be addressed by educators and employers.

Since the economic devastation wreaked by COVID-19, Stats SA has pegged youth unemployment at a seemingly insurmountable 61.3%. But is it only economic opportunity that is standing between South Africa’s youth and their journey to success?

According to Charlene Lackay, Group CSI Manager at Momentum Metropolitan, which is mandated with empowering South Africa’s youth, many young people from disadvantaged backgrounds often face psychological barriers that can impact their career trajectory, over and above the more obvious economic disparity.

Lackay says that whether it’s self-esteem, self-confidence, lack of resources, stress or anxiety, a lot can stand in their way. She believes that if we are to truly tackle youth unemployment, educators and employers need to acknowledge the existence of these invisible mental barriers, and take the right steps to help young people overcome these hurdles.

“Often, when a young person is awarded an opportunity – particularly if it is one that they place a high value on – they are hesitant to challenge the status quo, or believe that they do not have the experience or expertise necessary to offer their perspective or to ask questions.

“This is particularly heightened when the employee or student in question tends to be part of an underrepresented demographical group in corporate South Africa,” she says.

This reticence, says Lackay, is limiting, as it can “prevent a young person from fully benefitting from a specific opportunity, in terms of the growth that they might derive from their learnings.”

Where you come from impacts where you are going

One of the non-profit organisations (NPOs) that the Momentum Metropolitan Foundation works with is Life Choices, which is focused on helping young people from low-income backgrounds to lead fulfilling lives, through youth-focused interventions. Life Choices view these building blocks to be family stability, health, education, leadership skills and employment.

Life Choices’ Managing Director Sofia Neves says that you cannot ignore the unique background of every person you are striving to motivate.

“These young people are in situations where only they know what it means to survive. If part of your brain is more geared towards survival, and has been for most of your life, this is going to affect your cognitive understanding of things, your creativity, as well as the decisions that you make every single day,” says Neves.

She believes these effects are amplified by poverty, unemployment, criminality and now COVID-19, which makes many home situations untenable for youth from disadvantaged communities. “Many of our beneficiaries live with their relatives, and because of COVID-19, they now have to help carry their families as well as build their own lives, which adds to the psychological burden.”

Although these are tough situations that millions of young people face, Neves says many employers are disconnected from this reality, or unaware of the burden that home life can bring upon a young hopeful.

Beyond home life, upbringing and environment also plays a role in creating psychological barriers to success, says Neves. “You can be top of your class at your township school and then arrive at university with hundreds of other young learners who come from more privileged backgrounds, who might speak better English than you, or simply have more resources. This can have a significant impact on one’s self-esteem.”

Neves says we need to understand and acknowledge when someone is unfamiliar with the requirements of the working world, as well as the psychological baggage they may carry from their schooling, into job interviews.

“This is why we need to promote equity over equality, says Neves. “Our different backgrounds and psychological barriers are such that some will need more guidance and support than others – and it is the responsibility of educators and corporates to have a clear strategy in place that makes provision for this.”

A need for the right kind of mentorship

Another organisation that works closely with the Momentum Metropolitan Foundation is Rhiza Babuyile, an NPO that empowers township communities through holistic community development.

CEO of Rhiza Babuyile, Rushuping Morake believes that the right kind of mentorship can play a pivotal role in helping young people overcome these barriers.

“We need more role models in our communities,” says Morake. “Whether it’s a father, mother, uncle or teacher; we need more people who encompass and share the qualities that we need to instil in young people, to start to redress the limiting thinking and behaviours ingrained in our communities.”

For Morake, a mentor is someone who a young person can trust; someone within their community or from the same background as them, who has overcome the challenges that they now face. Morake believes that this kind of mentor is better positioned to help them navigate their journey than someone ‘outside’ – such as a counsellor provided by a company or educational institution.

“This is why we encourage and empower those beneficiaries who have been through our programme to become mentors themselves, as they have credibility among other young beneficiaries. They understand their unique circumstances, and have managed to overcome these same challenges. They are best placed to inspire, guide and encourage our young people,” says Morake.

It is through partnerships with NPOs such as Life Choices and Rhiza Babuyile that corporate South Africa can take a more holistic approach to tackling economic empowerment.

“Unemployment is arguably the single greatest problem facing South Africa today. It is not enough to simply view economic opportunity as the answer. We need to recognise the inherent psychological barriers that a young person from a low-income background might face, if we are to truly to redress the injustices of the past,” concludes Lackay.