“What do you want to be when you grow up?” I cannot count how many times I was asked this question as a child. I cannot count how many times I still hear this question asked of children today. The mistaken assumption is that young children already know all the vast options that are available to them when they have to take up the mantle of adulthood and work for a living. They simply have to choose one and study towards it. But is this really the case?
I don’t pay much attention to celebrities, but if you follow Zimbabwean news, there is no escaping it sometimes. Last week, a particular article kept popping up on my timeline. Zimbabwe’s self-styled “queen of swag”, Pokello Nare was in the news concerning her remarks to female graduates at the University of Zimbabwe. Pokello reportedly told them to, “dump their academic degrees and focus on things that would help them break from their current unemployment misery in a harsh economic environment.”
A highly mismatched education system
The overly academic and intellectual focus of our education system has come under scrutiny quite often; especially in light of how badly suited it is for a developing, industrializing country. As Zimbabweans, our disdain for ‘blue collar’ or ‘hands on’ work, is legendary. Worse still, our lack of appreciation for the arts and other non-intellectual endeavors continues to hamstring us. These attitudes inform the general response to Pokello’s comments.
Many pushed back against her sentiments, and there was an overall murmur about what qualifies Pokello to give career advice. However, if you pay attention to the message without worrying too much about the messenger, you have to agree that much of what she said carries a lot of merit. “The Zimbabwean economy right now needs you to be more innovative because chances of you having a job are almost zero” she said. “The rate of unemployment in the country is going to force you to think outside the box, follow your passion and do things that you like in the Zimbabwean economy.”
Someone once said to me that living in Zimbabwe is like being a Kenyan long distance runner. If you practice at high altitudes where the air is thin and devoid of oxygen, you can only but excel once called to operate at a regular altitude. In an interesting twist of irony, the Zimbabwean economy is great practice for what the global one is projected to become.
The gig economy
While some people will still be able to choose one job and have a lifelong career in it, like our parents, many of us will have to deal with the reality of moving from one job to the next, and oftentimes doing more than one job at the same time. Many of us already are. The rest of the world is slowly getting used to this type of labour marketplace that is based on temporary, task-based work, often referred to as the “gig economy”. In Zimbabwean parlance, these would be called ‘ma piece-jobs’. If you look at it in one way, we’re already a little ahead of the curve.
Thanks Zanu PF.
All jokes aside, Pokello’s generosity in dishing out life advice to recent graduates is much appreciated. However, we need a more concerted, less celebrity-led, effort in readying our young children for the world of work, both locally and within the broader global context. More importantly, we need an approach that does not disparage academic endeavor, but supplements it.
To be honest, I myself only learned about the existence of particular professions when I encountered colleagues studying for them at university-and I did not go to the worst of schools. We need to make students better prepared to make meaningful contributions to the resuscitation of this great house of stone. The standard responses of: Doctor, engineer, nurse, teacher, pilot (for Air Zimbabwe, maybe?) and even ‘President’ are no longer sufficient.
Changes in the global economy
The global economy is vastly changed from what it was when our parents went to school and prepared for their own adult lives. In fact, the global economy is changing at such a rapid rate, that more than 40% of currently existing jobs will be obsolete in the next 15 years. The figures used in such research are of course mainly drawn from developed economies, which are at much more risk of automation, but they are relevant nonetheless. Are we setting up the next generation to make better career choices than we did, and are we preparing them for the challenges bound to come their way?
As a nation, we need to invest in making children aware, from an early age, about how the economy functions, and what are the diverse roles in it. Parents should take the time to explain their occupations to their children, in detail. Schools should facilitate a careers day, and not the ‘trade fair’ kind like Scholastica and others, but actual engagements where parents and children can have frank conversations. These could easily be squeezed into consultation day programs, for instance. School trips should include an element of understanding different economic sectors, and the school curriculum has to provide career orientation that goes beyond traditional vocations that are themselves staring obsolescence in the face.
Zimbabwe is in dire straits, granted. Our economy lacks many fundamentals, agreed. The government should play its role in creating conditions that are conducive for employment, damn right. A lot of professionals have only ever done the jobs they qualified for once they left the country, true. Not everyone can and should be an entrepreneur, hell yes. Our university graduates are vastly under-qualified when it comes to practical learning and experience because the economy is not robust enough to absorb them, indeed. However, all these are not sufficient reasons to stop us from doing better.
Pokello moved from being known primarily as the star of an amateur sextape, to giving life and career advice and lectures at the University of Zimbabwe. If that is not proof that any situation is salvageable, I don’t know what is.