How useful is the idea of a ‘lost generation’?
The phrase and idea of a lost generation in studies of African youth, has been closely associated with the work of Cruise O’Brien. In 1996, O’Brien identified a generation of young people (loosely defined) who, as a consequence of factors including political unrest, violence and economic collapse leading to the breakdown of social structures, were unable to complete a socially constructed transition from youth to adulthood – therefore remaining indefinitely young. This generation where described as lost (in a liminal and lamentable world); their inability to mature through social institutions was compounded by their respective inability to economically support themselves, establish an independent household, marry or raise a family. This lost generation is predicated on a male experience. Allegedly these ideas, rather than the term explicitly, became widespread in academic literature, popular press, NGO policies and government concerns. In light of such prevalence an examination of the value of these ideas is worthwhile. This essay will first elaborate and historicise the idea of a lost generation, verifying what is essentially an academic model; it will then apply it to four case studies in order to explain how, while in theory a lost generation can be identified in numerous African contexts the perceived social crisis that they symbolise is much harder to locate.
Understood in retrospect, the lost generation are the African youth of the 1980s and 1990s whose experiences marked ‘a rupture from the relatively comfortable socialisation procedures of the … 1960 – 1970s boom years’ (57). The breakdown of guidance structures, those fallible markers social stability, in this period was precipitated, as John Iliffe explains, by the tripling of the continents population from two to six million between 1950 and 1990. Africa’s public institutions were overwhelmed by this growth and underwhelmed by funding following the poor management of African economies, global decreases in commodity prices and instances of regional violence. For the lost generation a multifaceted crisis ensued. Simply put, the recoiling economy shrunk the job market while the socialising capabilities of schools deteriorated, this impaired both the facilitator of child to adult development – the school, and the endgame that solidifies adult status – economic independence and its perpetuations. The lost generation model is also concerned with the disintegration of the ‘household’ – a notional and idealised establishment that asserts gender and generational morality, harmony and control, and ensures that youth reproduce their parent’s values. In this state of crisis youths allegedly fail to reach adult status, create imaginary worlds in which they can achieve their unavailable goals (Mains:2007:661;Jones:2009:670), resort to illegal activities to support themselves and become prey to the immoral forces of sexual impropriety and consumerism (Jones:2009:117;Diouf:2003:6-10). Figures that attest to widespread unemployment and the reduced quality and capacity of education services are readily available. In 1989, the World Bank, for example, attest that the allocation of public expenditure on education in 49 sub-Saharan African countries fell from $10 billion in 1980 to $8.9 billion in 1983, while school enrolments increased more than 50% (Sharp:2002:77). Measuring the breakdown of households as affective socialisation units, is more complex and is not attempted by either O’Brien or his colleagues Deborah Durham (2000) and Mamadou Diouf (2003) whose work he informed. The following two historical examples illustrate the veracity of the lost generation model in reference to debilitation of the household. Firstly, the recruitment of peasants to guerrilla forces fighting both a civil and an ideological war of independence in 1970s rural Zimbabwe undermined gender and generational norms by presenting...
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