The release of unemployment figures by the Mauritius Employers’ Federation last August indicated that the Mauritian youth is bearing the brunt of unemployment pain in the country. It is a frightening prospect – but unemployment could be merely the tip of the iceberg for our youth.
Edmund Burke argues that “Society is indeed a contract. The state is a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born. »
Burke’s philosophy can be transcribed into the idea of ‘Intergenerational Justice’, which sees the problems of a society through a ‘generational’ lens and where people are classified through the generations they belong to. Intergenerational Justice can thus be contrasted with the more popular notion of ‘Social Justice’ which views society as having a class based structure. In simple terms, Intergenerational Justice argues that the social contract should be redefined to protect younger generations from the demands of the older ones.
The critical eye of Intergenerational Justice would cast an unfavourable look on the challenges facing the Mauritian youth, such as the high costs of housing, protected benefits for an ageing population, youth unemployment and voter disillusionment.
 Youth Unemployment
Interestingly, youth unemployment is becoming a global problem. The situation is worst in the European countries currently making the headlines – Spain, Greece, Ireland and Italy. But South Africa, Brazil, Japan and the United States of America face the same challenge.
Youth unemployment does not have the attention it deserves in Mauritius, and this stance flies in the face of the potential negative consequences of high youth unemployment. As for the London riots, there is the risk of civil disobedience and rioting. Another worrying impact is a “wage scar”, as revealed by research from The Economist, which underlines that people who suffer unemployment early in their lives are likely to earn lower wages later on, and the longer the period the unemployment, then the bigger the impact on wages! The research goes on to illustrate that if two men with the same education, IQ, geographical location and parental education are compared, and the only variable is that one of them was unemployed for a year before the age of 23, then 10 years later he will be earning 23% less than the other.
Why is this so? During the period of recession in Japan in the early 2000s, the unemployed young took any job they found, even if it was below their qualification levels. This led to a vicious cycle of non-regular jobs which were low paid, lacked the opportunities of career progression and eventually led to career stagnation. When companies started recruiting again, they preferred to hire fresh graduates rather than those who had gone through the painful experience of youth unemployment.
The problem is particularly acute in Mauritius because those not going into higher education do not seem to have any prospect of a satisfactory full time job. The German apprenticeship model is an interesting solution. A quarter of employers provide formal apprenticeship schemes for young people, and almost two-thirds of children take one while they are at school. They get three days of paid work each week as salaried apprentices with employers during placements, which last a couple of years, easing the transition from school to work and allowing them to gain the much demanded, crucial work experience along the way. This model works well with the German export driven economy, but it is unclear to what extent it could apply to Mauritius, which is slowly evolving towards a service based economy.
Home ownership can potentially become a problem for the younger Mauritian generation. The market prices for renting and acquiring properties are appallingly high, and they will continue to rise. There are numerous reasons that can explain this surge – greater demand for land, the artificial rise in prices due to a knock on effect caused by products like the IRS schemes, the proliferation in real estate agencies… Consequently, younger families who have played by the book in terms of what was expected of them educationally and career wise, find themselves locked out of home ownership.  This sector probably needs a complete makeover. There is little regulation of the real estate sector, and it is unclear whether real estate agents undertake professional training.
An Ageing Population
Dealing with an ageing population is like a stampede of elephants in the room: everyone can see it coming, but it seems no one wants to face the issue of an ageing population and the disproportionate costs this problem brings for the young generation in Mauritius, especially in terms of pensions, old age care and other protected benefits for the older generation. According to the CIA World Factbook, a Mauritian born today can expect to live till 75 years old. The instinctive and emotional Mauritian reaction will be that we always care for our own but reality contends that the worst scenario is to do nothing about it.
Life expectancy is at the core of the Intergenerational Justice discourse. Fairness between generations did not exist previously, because there were fewer generations around anyway. Pensions can be the most significant issue at stake, since the older generation is essentially depending on the younger generation to look after it. Australia has moved swiftly to ensure a number of innovative solutions are able to respond to such a crisis. The Australian state pension is heavily means tested, with both individual income and assets included in the calculation. Australia also has the highest rate of coverage for company pensions in the world through a mechanism known as the “Superannuation Guarantee”. In a nutshell, it made it compulsory for employers to contribute a certain percentage of the salary of their workers earning above a threshold into a pension fund, with tax incentives encouraging the employees to add on to the original percentage. Thus, about 95% of Australian employees have an occupational pension. Another appealing feature is that the value of the superannuation fund is included in the calculation of the state pension for the individual, ensuring a fair calibration. These are interesting solutions which can be easily applied to our country. The state pension is a crucial feature of the Mauritian welfare model which allows our pensioners to live in dignity, and it should not be chopped away blindly. Change is however probably inevitable, and it is crucial to understand the role of the state pension and how it can be readapted to ensure it is most efficient in the Mauritius of tomorrow. The danger of not dealing with an ageing population should not be underestimated; for instance China could go backwards economically because of its ageing population and potential lack of young workers, leading observers to coin the phrase “China is too old to get rich”.
Intergenerational differences also undermine the legitimacy of the democratic process, since older voters will outnumber the younger ones. The one encouraging sign has been the greater interest the young generation gradually shows on questions of national policy, as so brilliantly demonstrated by Rezistans ek Alternativ on the question of ethnicity in political representation.
The voice of the young generation does not resonate as loudly as the older one, and yet politics dominates the life of the young Mauritian so much such as free but compulsory schooling and free transport to school. Should the voting age be reduced to the age of 16 years to reflect this?
There are democratic systems which actually have an upper limit on the voting age. For example, in the Vatican, Cardinals over 80 years old are not allowed to cast a vote in the election of a new Pope. It leads one to question the rationale for age limits on voting. The idea is that it is a measure of whether a person can exercise individual rational choice. At the same time, voting ages varies around the world – 16 in Brazil, 21 in Singapore, 18 in Mauritius. The point is that voting age counts, and the younger generation can only advance its interests through the ballot box.
The best example of the gap between the stances of the current political class and the aspirations of the youth is the current debate on the Best Loser System. Paul Bérenger going from ‘La lutte des classes contre la lutte des races’ in 1982 to claiming today that the Mauritian youth knows nothing of our history illustrates how our representatives and social leaders may be out of touch with the progressive views of the youth. The intergenerational cross of arms between Yousuf and Shakeel Mohammed on the question of ethnic representation is a subplot which further crystallises this point.
Lowering the voting age to 16 could encourage the younger generation to participate actively on questions of national interest, but also make sure that its voice is heard. Furthermore, we are living in a world where the youth is at the front line of significant societal changes. From the ‘Occupy Movement’ in London and New York to the use of social networking sites to ignite the Arab Spring, the youth has been taking bold steps towards shaping a better future.
It is crucial that this always happens in a peaceful manner. As such, it is recommended that a Youth Parliament be created. It should be run as a youth organisation and structured on a similar basis to the current ‘Model United Nations’ programme organised in high schools. Our young students would become literate in the way the constitutional system works and use the weapons of advocacy and debate to further the policies they care about.
Mauritians are right to be proud of our welfare state. It has pulled so many out of poverty, granted access to free and quality education and other hallmarks of social protection. However we can learn from what is currently happening in many economies of the Western world, where welfare states began as basic safety nets but have morphed into cushions, and become a model of our own.