A Kenyan youth paradox: In future, society will value merit and hard work, but will also be more corrupt

How is it that young people can be so rosy-eyed about the future, and at the same time seem have a low commitment to ethical behaviour?

A NEW survey on attitudes of Kenyan youth reveals that they value faith more than freedom, but are afraid to stand up for what’s right. They also say it doesn’t matter how one makes money, as long as you don’t go to jail.

These are some of the startling – and often contradictory – insights from the Kenya  edition of the East Africa Youth Survey by the Aga Khan University in Nairobi, to be released on January 18.

The findings show that more than 80% say “faith” is their most cherished value, followed by family, work, and wealth. Less than 40% say “freedom” is their most cherished value.

While work is a cherished value, the association between hard work and success declines dramatically with level of education. 83% of young people who only have a primary school education say “you will succeed if you work hard,” and just 7% say that success belongs to those who work smart and not hard.

But those with a postgraduate education are less convinced that hard work brings success (50%) and more think that smarts are more important (44%). It suggests that life experiences and their interaction with the formal sector economy has taught them that there are more ephemeral factors to success than just hard work.

The same ‘cynicism’ is found when asked about ethnicity - but it takes on an unexpected shape. Kenya is characterised as a country obsessed with ethnicity, but according to the data, ethnicity is the least important dimension of identity among Kenyan youth. 

Less than 5% say their ethnicity comes first as their primary identity. However, those over 30 years of age expressed stronger ethnic identity - which may suggest that as one moves into adulthood, ethnicity becomes a more salient factor of life: for example, getting married involves meeting up with “elders” and makes one more acquainted with your traditions and culture.

Richer materially

Kenyan young people seem very optimistic about the future. More than seven in ten believe that in the future, Kenya will be richer materially and will have better access to quality education and health, and more jobs for the youth.

Two-thirds believe society will reward merit and hard work.

But at the same time, there is a high expectation for more corruption, and a high personal tolerance for it. Four in ten say there will be more corruption in the future; a similar percentage (40%) say they would only vote for a candidate who bribes them and a third say they would “easily” give or take a bribe.

More worryingly, nearly half (47%) say they admire those who get their money by “hook or crook” and fully half (50%) agree with the statement: “It doesn’t matter how you make your money, as long as you don’t go to jail.”

And nearly three quarters – 73% - admit they are “afraid to stand up for what is right”.

How is it that young people can be so rosy-eyed about the future, and expect the country to be a meritocracy, and at the same time seem have a low commitment to ethical behaviour?

It suggests one of two things: Either they expect to benefit personally from corruption, and see unethical behaviour as a temporary, but necessary step to give you an initial step in life. Or they believe that Kenya will be so materially prosperous that individual acts of corruption are will make a small dent in the overall picture.

Still, the admiration of a ‘by-all-means-necessary’ pursuit of material gain may not be a cynical, outright endorsement of theft, but rather born out of desperation and lack of opportunities.

The survey found that 800,000 young people enter the labour market every year, but only 50,000 find jobs in the formal sector – a mere 6.25%.

Youth unemployment is about 55% overall; even among graduates, 1 in two university degree holders are unemployed, and 1 in 5 youth with university degrees are in self-employment.

Perhaps not all these self-employed youth are running their own gigs because they have been boxed into a corner – sometimes it is out of choice, as they may value being in charge of their own time. But the risk of being trapped in low-productivity informal jobs is real.


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