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,
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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