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 young men and women with alternative socialisation trajectories (cf. Lyons:2004). Guerrilla movements offered employment, education and new forms of authority to emulate all beyond the metaphorical and physical realms of homesteads and elders.
At independence in 1980, the Zimbabwean youth were politicized, traumatized and hopeful of the societal positions they could fulfil in the changing national landscape. Secondly, male-migratory labour that fed the South African mining industry throughout the 1900s allowed women in rural areas to claim independence and authority in domestic matters; they also negotiated new legal definitions of marriage and dependency to ensure that their husbands sent them stipends whether or not they chose to return home.
At the mines, men negotiated their gender segregation with ‘mine marriages’ between young and relatively older men. These new social structures reproduced many of the stereotypes found in heterosexual households and had become widespread by the 1970s. They represent the changing roles of young men (becoming mine wives) and the new trajectories they followed in order to afford bridlewealth and become adult men (cf. Dunbar-Moodie:1988).
The experience of socialization by youth in decades characterized by new economic circumstances or conflict not only undermines previous household structures but it also creates great variation in generational experiences, making inter-generational rapport problematic. When the household, no longer exemplar of normative values, fails to stream, reproduce, endorse or facilitate the youths transition to adulthood, a crisis is created, manifested in a lost generation who have no clear future and no path to get there.
However as the examples above show, alternative means to maturity are often pursued. As this essay aims to clarify, the heralding crisis, which when sought is easily found by academic analysts, can be better understood as friction between ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’. The youth of the 1980s and 1990s were no more or less lost than the youth in the decades preceding and following them, each generation experienced severe ruptures and each generation adapted. Daniel Mains’ fieldwork between 2003-2005 in Jimma, Ethiopia, illustrates how a lost generation can be located outside of O’Brien’s timeline.
In Ethiopia, the combination of variables of population explosion, regional instability and violence (on-going conflicts in the Ogaden and with Eritrea), divisive generational historical experiences under different regimes (a socialist dictatorial Mengistu 1977-91 and an authoritative yet pluralist Zenawi from 1991), poor educational institutions and a saturated job market (following reduced public-sector funding under neo-liberal policies) did not result in social breakdown symbolised by a menacing identifiable youth.
It may be true that Jimma’s male unemployed eighteen to thirty year-olds were disillusioned by their inability to actualise aspirations, but because they represent the resilience of cultural values they were not a symbol of social crisis. Unable to find public-sector jobs a number of these men chose unemployment rather than ‘undesirable’ occupations associated with yilun ? n ? ta – shame or ‘fear of what others might think or say about one or one’s family if one were seen performing this type of work’ (Mains:2007:662). Undesirable’ jobs, such as shoe shining or stewarding, were those that required deference to a client and were therefore not premised on reciprocal social interaction. These men had access to the ‘minimal social networks necessary to meet their daily needs for food and shelter’ (Mains:2007:666), illustrating the durability of social structures, and, in their cases, rural households. Despite their maintenance of a ‘moral compass’, these youth, by O’Brien’s standards were lost. Their maturation was suspended by their continued dependency.
Because they associated time with inactivity and invariance their understanding of progress ceased to be temporal but became spatial – requiring national or international migration. One unemployed man explained: “I can do more in six months in America than I can in five years in Ethiopia. In America there is progress. ” Mains recounts that during his fieldwork most of the waiters who served him were migratory employees within two to three days travel from home. At work they were surrounded by strangers, ‘the stress of yilun ? ? ta was [therefore] forgot’ (Mains:2007:669). Mains’ unemployed generation who had completed education to secondary level and were supported by family networks were a minority in Jimma. They represent a lost generation dedicated to the values of their society, so much so, that they would suffer endless days of youth or reimagine time and space to seek progression rather than undermine them. Jeremy Jones’ fieldwork in Harare, Zimbabwe, also in the early 2000s, draws similar conclusions.
He presents (2009) a lost generation that attempted to reproduce social structures while equally redefining the relationship of progress to time. Jones narrates the circumstances of twenty-four-year-old Okocha who was confronted with the normative academically identified issues: disintegration of public socialising institutions, a lack of formal employment, and thus a disparity between aspiration and possible achievement. After a deviating into the taboo realms of multiple sexual partners and diamond trafficking, Okocha was reformed after a rural and religious sojourn with a relative.
While he continued to engage in illegal activities to secure his economy, he became both a husband and a father, making a nominal bridlewealth payment to secure the honour. Given the disparate nature of his pregnant fiancee’s family and his economic circumstances at the time, the payment was not straightforward, it was however, a societal obligation that Okocha was keen to acknowledge and maintain despite his inability provide a household. Mains showed social and work relations to be interdependent in Ethiopia, similarly, delimitations of between social space or time and workspace or time for Okocha were unclear – he informal nature of his black market trade blurring possible distinctions. Okocha’s marriage is described in opposition to his previous unorthodox activities, as well as his contemporary irregular existence. For Jones, youth do no embrace or create crisis or chaos; rather, they regulate their own existence by choosing to reproduce institutions of marriage and household maintenance – albeit on their own, modern, terms. Jones engages with the ideas of a lost generation largely in order to refute them on account of their Durkheimian origins.
This he does sensitively and provocatively, however he falls short of providing an alternative framework – beyond the credible council to base analysis of African youth on African youths, not on discourse. Jones’ argument illustrates the difficulties that arise when modernity and tradition are aligned in discourse and in reality. Both Mains and Jones, like O’Brien and his colleagues, focus on young men. The following two examples will test the lost generation hypothesis against the circumstances of young women.
Lynn Thomas’ research on the position of young girls in Kenya also illustrates perceived conflicts between modernity and tradition. In early twentieth-century Meru, a rural area north of Nairobi, a girls transition to womanhood was a ‘process extending from several months to a couple of years. Initiation began only after a girl had passed puberty and, ideally, had become betrothed. It entailed three separate physical procedures – ear piercing, abdominal scarification, and female genital cutting – each of which was surrounded by dances, celebrations and teachings’ (2007:51).
The urban migration of Meru girls disrupted these ‘traditional’ procedures, but initiation, or nthoni (respectful) practices persisted through, Thomas argues, formal education that pooled parent’s resources and involved elders imparting their wisdom to prepare girls for reproduction and marriage. The belief that a child conceived outside nthoni was not a ‘proper person’ and could bring misfortune and death was still widely held the 1990s (2007:51).
Such beliefs were part of debates ‘over how to prepare female bodies and minds for procreation and how to ensure that their fertility contributes to the composition of wealth not immiseration’ (2007:49). In Kenyan media and politics such debates were articulated explicitly in concerns over schoolgirl pregnancies. Despite the fact that schoolgirls continuing to secondary education and falling pregnant whilst at school were a minority, the image of the promiscuous urban environment and the school as a site of sexual predation was pervasive.
Thomas, being more concerned with gender than youth, despite the obvious benefits of considering them together, does not engage with whether or not the girls in question were able, or unable, to attain womanhood, marriage or economic subsistence. However, her work does point to the continuity of beliefs and practices governing maturity and their resilience despite disruption. Lesley Sharp’s 2002 ethnography of youth in Madagascar is not limited to men, women, privileged, or under-privileged classes. Sharp is anxious about the 1980s fall in public expenditure across Africa that was coupled with increases in school enrolment.
Because her research revealed that ‘schooling most certainly entails enormous sacrifices and frequently ends prematurely in scholastic failure’ her conclusions remain divided over whether or not Malagasy children should ‘heed the wisdom of colonial pedagogy and exchange pencils, pens, and paper for seeds and hoes’ (2002:273). Colonial pedagogy is central to O’Brien’s lost generation, which repeats colonial fears over the productivity and reproductivity of youth and the alleged chaos that is engendered by disruption of assumed evolutionary progression.
True to her anthropological spirit, Sharp found no chaos. The repetitive nature of abstract, external perceptions of and attempts to control Africans were described by one informant, Dalia, a twenty-one-year-old girl from Ambanja, a coastal town north of Antananarivo: ‘foreigners have imposed … their ways on us from the beginning of colonial contact. They like to tell the Malagasy what to do, and what is wrong with our culture. They don’t like our marriage practices, they don’t like our ancestral customs … And now, look what they are doing – they say we have too many children, we have too much sex.
And so they impose the threat of AIDS upon us’ (Sharp:2002:249) Dalia daily negotiated the council of their elders as well as her realities, she was aware of AIDS and social standards, and conducted her own romantic relationships with care. In Madagascar, class defined romantic relationships and access to leisure spaces. With more money and time, it was the minority upper-middle-classes that frequented urban nightclubs, wore high fashion attire and were more likely to be involved in serial public relationships (Sharp:2002:232).
Interpreted as spaces of western import that promote consumerism and sexual promiscuity discotheques across Africa have been a subject of social anxiety. In Madagascar they were also ritualised spaces with dress codes and mating rules, not dissimilar from ‘traditional’ celebrations, and illustrative of ways in which ‘youth has always had its own internal codes of self-discipline and proper behaviour’ (Waller:2006:77). However, it is the perception of these spaces as symbolic of social breakdown not the regulating reality, albeit for a minority; that shapes their reputation.
In Ambanja, for example, the fear of sexual laxity in urban areas, not actual pregnancy or financial difficulty was one of the most common reasons for preventing the continuation of migrant schoolgirls education. The young women in Thomas and Sharp’s narratives are not a lost generation. They inhabited a world of perceived immorality, consumerism and sexual promiscuity and disease, one, which they negotiated with agency and direction. Three primary themes are absent from this discussion: religion, militarism and politics.
The recourse to religion of people in times of alleged social crisis is an established (and sadly under challenged) trope. Religious movements are perceived as providing structure, guidance, authority and possibly alternative definitions of adulthood to youth as they mature. However, it has also been argued that in Africa, religion, particularly Pentecostalism, contributes to the disillusionment of youth by impressing on them unrealistic sincerities: ‘if you’re good, you will succeed’ (Steinberg:2012). Regular and irregular militias are also socialising institutions as the opening example of Zimbabwean guerrilla forces illustrates.
On the subject of a lost generation male child soldiers, the complex relationship between militarism and manhood, and the social anxiety associated with instituted violence takes centre-stage. An original subject of analysis, that highlights the ambiguity of the child soldier – the result of nonnegotiable pressure but not without desire, is Sara Dorman’s 2004 study of youth conscription in 1990s Eritrea. One aim of this army was to revitalise intergenerational relations through an emphasis on the inheritance of liberation war.
Youth political activism across Africa manifested in numerous protests in the 1980s and 1990s. In Algeria, men in their mid-twenties living with koukra (the curse) of extended childhood who had no personal space at home and no primary occupation became known as hittists due to the amount of time they spent leaning against walls (hit) in public areas. Ironically, the nickname implied that these men were holding up the walls of the country while they waited for a revolution. In 1988, they stopped waiting and the foundations of the state weakened: around five hundred hittists were killed in anti-state demonstrations.
Political pluralism was introduced, but protests for jobs, housing, higher-level education, all that was promised and all that the young, and old, aspire to have, continue on a daily basis. They Algerian youth of the 1980s did not inhabit the suspended world of Nkocho nor was world of elsewhere their fantasy. They may have been lost in the O’Brien sense, but, like the Tunisian and Nigerian youth of today with their innovative forms of organisation through social media networking, they found each other, whether as looters, thrill-seekers, students or otherwise, in enough numbers to engage in politics and voice their demands. The young have always had power if not authority’ (Waller:2006:77). The demographic pressures, rising unemployment and often-violent discrimination that African youth faced in the 1980-1990s, were unique to their generation. However, the as the South African, Kenyan and (first) Zimbabwean examples given here have shown, history has a precedent for extreme disruption that results in the dissolution of relations of age, kinship and gender (Waller:2006:77). Historical precedent also indicates ‘that the young continue to age … mature and inherit the authority, wealth and worries of elders’ (Waller:2006:77).
The fact that generations before and after the 1980-1990s have experienced their own episodic crises reveals both that the young have more in common with the old that their binary categories allow, and also, that ‘stable society’ is an imaginary construction. The theory of a lost generation does not account for elders or for gender, it is not historicized and it is predicated on inflexible structural models of society and the existence of evolutionary time not personally investigated realities.
A reframing of the lost generation after absorbing Charles Tilly’s (1984) delegitimization of nineteenth-century ‘pernicious postulates’ concerning society and process might provide the theory with the rigour it needs if it is to sustain discussion rather than just stimulating it. Jones explained that O’Brien’s thesis has worrying similarities to the words of Robert Kaplan who advocated that ‘loose family structures’ facilitated the ‘Coming Anarchy’ (Jones:2009:10;Kaplan:1994). Kaplan himself was merely repeating what anxious colonial authorities and elders had been saying throughout the previous century.
This type of pessimistic fatalism does not encourage academic creativity nor does it acknowledge the resilience of youth and of society, which continue to reproduce themselves in myriad of different realities. Bibliography Donal D. Cruise O’Brien, A Lost Generation? Youth Identity and State Decay in West Africa, (1996) Mamadou Diouf, ‘Engaging Postcolonial Cultures: African Youth and Public Space’, African Studies Review, 46:2, (2003) Sara Rich Dorman, ‘Past the Kalashnikov: Youth, Politics and the State in Eritrea’ in Jon Abbink & Ineke van Kessel eds. Vanguard or Vandals: Youth, Politics and Conflict in Africa, (Boston, 2005)
Deborah Durham, ‘Youth and the Social Imagination in Africa: Introduction to Parts 1 and 2’, (2000) T. Dunbar-Moodie with V. Ndatshe and B. Sibuyi, ‘Migrancy and Male Sexuality on the South African Gold Mines’, Journal of Southern African Studies 14:2, (1988) Jeremy Jones, ‘”It’s not normal but it’s common”: Elopement, Marriage, and the Mediated Recognition of Youth Identity in Harare, Zimbabwe’, New Frontiers of Child and Youth Research in Africa, (2009) Robert Kaplan, ‘The Coming Anarchy’, in Atlantic Monthly, (February, 1994) Tanya Lyons, Guns and Guerilla Girls: Women in the Zimbabwean National
Liberation Struggle, (2004) Daniel Mains, ‘Neoliberal times: Progress, Boredom, and Shame among Young Men in Urban Ethiopia’, American Ethnologist Volume 34:4, (2007) Lesley A. Sharp, The Sacrificed Generation: Youth History and the Colonised Mind in Madagascar, (California 2002) Jonny Steinberg, ‘Youth in Contemporary Africa’, lecture delivered at University of Oxford, (January, 2012) Lynn Thomas, ‘Gendered Reproduction: Placing Schoolgirl Pregnancies in African History’, in Africa after Gender, (2007) Charles Tilly, Big Structures, Large Processes, Huge Comparisons, (New York, 1984)
Richard Waller, ‘Rebellious Youth in Colonial Africa’, Journal of African History, 47, (2006) ———————–  For debates over definition see Durham, 2000, pp. 115; Jones, 2009, pp. 2-3, 13; and Mains, 2007, pp. 661.  !. /0IXtu“±ioy? %H[i? e)-/=iUiE»°¤™Z™? ™xm? Q? Z? Z? ZEZ? hC=? hcl6? OJQJhC=? hi}OJQJ! jhavyhA>u0JOJQJU[pic]havyhk+#OJQJhavyhOBOJQJhC=? hk+#OJQJhC=? hclOJQJhC=? hOBOJQJhC=? hIn urban Ethiopia, the unemployment rate for young people between the ages of 18 and 30 is estimated to be higher than 50% (Mains:2007:660).