Dreams and uncertainty

Whether they live in developing or industrialised countries, young people are looking for perspectives. And wherever there is poverty, there are high expectations of the young generation.

Uta Rasche

In a vocational college in Kabul, M. and three of her colleagues sit side by side on a worn brown sofa. There are broad smiles on the young women’s faces. They’ve obviously made an effort to look smart, especially M., who’s wearing skinny jeans, a tailored black jacket and a black scarf draped loosely around her hair. Her make-up is carefully applied. Her colleagues’ outfits are more traditional – long dresses or skirts, worn with gleaming high-heeled shoes. The women have spent the last six months completing a vocational teacher education programme, and today they are being presented with their certificates. Prior to that, they themselves attended a vocational college for two years. Aged just between 20 and 22, they will soon be training other young women. They have been studying bookkeeping, accountancy and management.

Now it’s time for them to pass on their skills. These four young recruits to the teaching profession are among Afghanistan’s educated elite. It is their generation that has the task of rebuilding this ruined country. There are high expectations of them, as they are well aware: ‘We want to help our country,’ says M.

Education requires a high level of commitment

Héctor Piedrafita realised a long time ago that self-motivation was his key to the future. The 25-year-old from Spain sits in his host family’s dining room in Otzberg in Hesse. Behind his smiling face, there is shyness: he still can’t speak German as fluently as he would wish. In August 2014, he began his training as a chemical technician with Merck in Darmstadt – although he already holds a degree in chemical engineering. ‘I am happy to have this opportunity,’ he says. In Spain, youth unemployment stands at around 55 per cent. Some of Héctor’s school friends have moved to the UK, but he opted for Germany. His classmates who stayed in Spain have only been offered internships and low-paid temporary jobs so far. ‘That became clear to us while we were studying,’ says Héctor. ‘There’s simply no work in Spain.’

Girls still find it difficult to access education. After years under the Taliban, the situation in Afghanistan is only gradually improving. (Photo: Sergey Ponomarev/laif)
Girls still find it difficult to access education. After years under the Taliban, the situation in Afghanistan is only gradually improving. (Photo: Sergey Ponomarev/laif)

More than 6,000 kilometres separate M. and Héctor. But while their countries are very different, their situations are similar. They are young and full of hope, and gaining an education has required a high level of commitment from both of them. Héctor left his home country because he knew it could not offer him a future in his chosen career. One of M.’s colleagues comes from Herat, at the other end of the country, more than a day’s drive away. To attend each of the training weeks in Kabul, she had to be accompanied by her father, her grandfather or one of her brothers, for women are not allowed to travel on their own in Afghanistan. Neither Héctor nor M. belongs to a generation of ‘gilded youth’ who can spend their time pleasure-seeking at their wealthy parents’ expense. These two young people have no option but to be self-motivated and create the conditions for their future financial security. And despite the difficult economic circumstances, they are determined to have a good life, earn a decent wage and live in dignity.

Precarious employment

Youth as a carefree existence, long on pleasure and short on commitments and responsibility, is a familiar scenario, but mainly in Western industrial societies, and only for the educated elite. The reality is that even in the midst of prosperity, it is difficult for many young people to gain a foothold in the highly specialised adult world of work. As a result, most young people spend their teenage years preparing for working life, gaining qualifications and ‘entry tickets’ to adult life. They have hopes and dreams, but they are often beset by doubts as well. Economic dependence is lasting longer and longer for young adults, even in many Western countries. At the same time, they yearn for independence. This dichotomy can cause problems for parents and young people, for there is a high rate of youth unemployment, especially in southern Europe. But in Germany too, the ‘internship generation’ is all too familiar with the uncertainty caused by precarious employment.

‘… and I remember my youth and the feeling … that I could last for ever, outlast the sea, the earth, and all men’
Joseph Conrad, in his short story ‘Youth’, 1902

Yet it is often the young who are drivers of change. In Germany, the student movement broke open the intellectual and moral constraints of the post-war era. In Egypt and Tunisia, many of the protesters who forced autocrats Mubarak and Ben Ali to resign were the young unemployed, women and men alike. Student demonstrators lined the streets and waved their diplomas, venting their frustration at the fact that despite their qualifications, they were unable to find work. In Egypt, the mass protests were not only an expression of fury at the state’s security apparatus, the lack of freedom of opinion and widespread corruption. They were also triggered by anger at the supply bottlenecks affecting bread and flour, and the poor quality of state education. Rising prices and poor job opportunities were an explosive mix. Young adults with no economic prospects and little hope of ever achieving independence and starting a family were the driving forces behind the Arab Spring in Egypt.

'Youth bulge' as a cause of protests

One young man in particular was the trigger for the protests across the Arab world: Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old Tunisian street vendor. After the death of his father, it fell to him to support his family by selling fruit and vegetables from a cart. But Mohamed was often harassed by the police because he had no permit, and then they confiscated his wares and scales. He complained to the municipal authorities – to no avail. He was arrested and beaten by the police. In protest at these humiliations, Mohamed set himself alight. His self-immolation in December 2010 was a rallying cry.

Mohamed Bouazizi’s act inspired others in Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, Mauritania and Egypt. Researchers have identified the ‘youth bulge’ – meaning that young people make up a disproportionately large share of the population – as one of the causes of the protests. In the Maghreb countries, around two thirds of the population are under 30 years of age. In a prosperous country, a very young population can stimulate additional growth, but if training opportunities and jobs are in short supply or food is scarce, the ‘youth bulge’ can become a catalyst for social upheaval instead of boosting the economy. In the past 40 years, the populations of Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco have doubled, while Libya has experienced a staggering threefold increase in population numbers.

90 % of 10- to 24-year-olds live in developing countries.

Worldwide, 75 million young people are seeking work. According to a recent report by the International Labour Organization (ILO), the youth labour market for the 15 to 24 age group has worsened in almost every region of the world, with young people three times more likely than adults to be unemployed in 2013. This situation, ILO suggests, is partly a consequence of the economic and financial crisis. The rise in youth unemployment is highest in the Middle East and North Africa, where around one in three young people are out of work. There are gender differences in the youth employment situation as well, with young females experiencing particular difficulties compared with young males. Young women who find employment tend to be concentrated in low-skilled, low-paid jobs.

Youth unemployment in the European Union

In the European Union, too, the number of young people not in employment, education or training has recently increased. In May 2013, Germany and Spain therefore agreed to give 5,000 young Spaniards per year, over four successive years, the opportunity to undertake training in Germany. Héctor is one of them. He found out about the programme, which is run by the German Federal Employment Agency, on the internet. When his letter of acceptance dropped through the letterbox at his home in the Pyrenean village of Villanúa, his parents and friends celebrated with him. Around 500 people live here, at an altitude of almost 1,000 metres, earning a living from tourism and agriculture.

Focusing on the future: Héctor Piedrafita’s search for career prospects has taken him away from his home country to Germany. He now does a vocational training with the German company Merck. (Photo: Dirk Ostermeier)
Focusing on the future: Héctor Piedrafita’s search for career prospects has taken him away from his home country to Germany. He now does a vocational training with the German company Merck. (Photo: Dirk Ostermeier)

Héctor’s mother manages a youth hostel; his father works for a municipal cleaning company. Héctor knew that as a chemical engineer, he had no future in Villanúa. Before leaving for Germany, he attended a three-month language course in Zaragoza. In parallel, he completed internships with a motor industry supplier, a sewage treatment plant and a research institute. He and four other Spaniards are now working for Merck. ‘We were given a very warm welcome,’ he says. For the first six months, the apprentices are living with Merck employees’ families, and have attended a four-week induction course to familiarise themselves with the company. Héctor goes swimming every day or spends the evening playing volleyball with co-workers. He stays in contact with his friends and family via Skype and by email. ‘I don’t have time to be homesick!’ he says. He plans to use Darmstadt as a base from which to visit the European capital cities one by one, starting soon. He misses the mountains, but that’s all. After completing his training, he hopes to stay in Germany and work as an engineer.

‘I am happy to have this opportunity. There’s simply no work in Spain.’
Héctor Piedrafita, 25, is a trainee chemical technician with Merck in Darmstadt.

For M. in Kabul, training as a vocational teacher was merely an interim step. ‘I would like to work more hours, not only in the mornings,’ she says. She hopes to get a job in a bank some day, so she is attending evening classes at a private university. Her aim is to obtain a Bachelor’s degree. And she is prepared to move abroad to take a Master’s – Afghan universities do not offer postgraduate courses. Jobs in Afghanistan’s public sector are not particularly well-paid, but at least it’s a regular wage. With support from international donors, the country is now in the process of expanding its network of vocational colleges. The aim is to ensure that by 2020, 20 per cent of young people in each year group have access to vocational training; at present, the figure is just 4 per cent. But in Afghanistan, a vocational college is very different from its German counterpart: the teachers lack practical skills, there are no training workshops, and many schools don’t even have an electricity supply. Cooperation with industry is an alien concept. Technical standards in businesses are often very low as well. As the owner of a car repair shop in Kabul explains: ‘We can only repair cars built before 1995. With the newer models, we fix one part and ruin three others.’

A potential solution: vocational training

M. comes from a privileged family. Her father works at the Ministry of Education and her mother is a teacher. More than two thirds of the Afghan people work in agriculture. While the Taliban were in power, M.’s parents arranged for her to be educated in secret. It was only in 2014 that Afghanistan celebrated its first cohort of girls to complete a full course of schooling: the fall of the Taliban regime meant that they were able to attend school for 12 years relatively unhindered. Over time, this will reduce the country’s illiteracy rate, currently one of the highest in the world – around 50 per cent of men and 90 per cent of women in Afghanistan cannot read or write. Occupations requiring formal training are now being established with international support.

The Afghan Government has a very positive attitude towards these initiatives, for it considers that better vocational training also offers an opportunity to close young people’s ears to the siren call of extremism. Around one million young Afghans scrape a living as casual labourers. However, a young person who acquires technical and commercial skills and takes citizenship classes has no reason to join the Taliban – at least, that’s what policy-makers hope. The Ministry of Education even broadcasts advertisements for vocational schools on TV.

40 % young people accounted for 40% of the world’s 197 million unemployed in 2012.

In this way, Afghanistan is attempting to replicate a model espoused by Georg Kerschensteiner in Germany in the late 19th century. Kerschensteiner, who served as Munich’s Director of State Schools, was one of the founding fathers of Germany’s network of vocational schools, which in his day were still known as ‘industrial schools’ (Arbeitsschulen). He believed that career prospects, combined with civic education, would protect young men from ‘moral decay’. But what can be done today to tackle the high rate of youth unemployment? Even in Europe, the under-25s now account for around one third of the long-term unemployed. According to the Bonn-based Institute for the Study of Labor, the under-25s are the weakest group in the European labour market, lacking experience, business expertise, and adequate protection from dismissal. Regardless of whether the economy was booming or in recession, young people have always found it more difficult than adults to find work. In August 2014, youth employment in the Eurozone averaged 23 per cent. However, it was below 8 per cent in Germany.

Your best friends around you and all the time in the world: some young people have a carefree existence – but only in a few Western countries. (Photo: Getty Images/Carsten Görling)
Your best friends around you and all the time in the world: some young people have a carefree existence – but only in a few Western countries. (Photo: Getty Images/Carsten Görling)

Economic stability is not the only reason why Germany is ahead of the game. A key factor is its dual education system, which combines workplace and classroom-based training and is one of Germany’s most successful exports. Global management consulting firm McKinsey conducted a study in 2014 entitled ‘Education to Employment: Getting Europe’s Youth into Work’, for which it surveyed 5,300 young people, 2,600 employers and 700 education providers from eight countries: France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. The aim was to evaluate the quality of vocational training and university education, and the results were sobering. The study found that Germany and the UK were the only countries where training providers consulted with employers regularly. This kind of dialogue was lacking in all other countries. While around 74 per cent of vocational training providers believed that they were preparing their students adequately for professional life, only 35 per cent of the employers agreed.

Young people must become more mobile

The young unemployed are all too familiar with the crushing feeling of being rejected. And the experience has a lasting effect throughout their careers, according to the Institute for Employment Research in Nuremberg: on average, every day of unemployment during the first years on the labour market increases unemployment by an additional day in later life. And researchers in the UK report that 42-year-olds who were jobless when young are still earning less than their continuously employed peers. So there are good reasons why young people should be spared this experience.

But the question is, how? According to labour market researchers, there is an urgent need for a vocational training reform in many countries. But until that takes effect, they recommend that young people leave their home countries, at least temporarily, and move to wherever jobs are more plentiful and training is a better match for business needs – just as Héctor has done.

The optimism of Malala Yousafzai

Despite the numerous challenges they face, young people are still willing to stand up for their rights. They are cou-rageous and enthusiastic, and some are quick to turn the spotlight on suffering and injustice. One of them is Malala Yousafzai, a young woman from Pakistan who, in December 2014, became the youngest person ever to win the Nobel Peace Prize, which she shared with Kailash Satyarthi, a children’s rights activist from India. Malala became a symbolic figure in young women’s struggle for the right to education after she was shot by a Taliban gunman on her school bus for opposing the local ban on girls attending school. Although critically injured, she successfully underwent treatment in Pakistan and the UK city of Birmingham. Today, she lives in Birmingham with her family and continues her advocacy for girls’ right to an education. On her 16th birthday in July 2013, Malala delivered an address to the United Nations Youth Assembly, in which she called for a global struggle against illiteracy, poverty and terrorism, a struggle in which education is the most powerful weapon. ‘One child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world,’ she said. This young woman has already inspired many other people with her dream of a better future.

published in akzente 1/15


Examplex of work at GIZ


Project: Youth participation at municipal level
Country: Tunisia
Commissioned by: German Federal Foreign Office, German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development
Lead executing agencies: Tunisian Ministry of the Interior, Direction générale des collectivités publiques locales du Ministère de l’Intérieur, municipalities
Term: 2012 to 2017

GIZ is promoting dialogue between municipalities and civil society in order to strengthen civil engagement and to increase involvement of young people.



Project: Technical assistance and support services in establishing vocational training centres for the tribal youths of Gujarat State
Country: India
Commissioned by: Government of Gujarat
Term: 2010 to 2015

GIZ International Services has established five skills development centres in the Indian state of Gujarat. The training provided by the centres is improving the social and economic status of the tribal youths of Gujarat. The first cohorts of graduates have already found work and are earning significantly higher wages than they could have expected to achieve without the training.



Project: Promoting vocational training and the labour market
Country: Palestinian Territories
Commissioned by: German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development
Lead executing agency: Palestinian ministries of education, higher education and labour
Term: 2011 to 2015

GIZ has developed strategies for vocational training and employment in order to equip more young Palestinians with skills that match the region’s labour market needs. The programme is receiving additional support from the European Union and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation.



Project: Promoting girls and young women through sport and sports coaching in schools
Country: Afghanistan
Commissioned by: German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development
Partner: Afghanistan Football Federation
Term: 2013 to 2015

In cooperation with the German Football Association, national sports bodies and the Afghan Ministry of Education, GIZ is training female sports teachers. The aim is to improve the opportunities for girls to participate in sport. The school day currently offers girls little scope for physical activity.


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