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Growing Up Jamaica(n)

(Talking ‘Bout My Generation)

We have synchronised our watches, studied our calendars, existed in minutes, and completely forgotten to step back and see what we've accomplished.
- Jodi Piccoult, My Sister’s Keeper

Where did all the great leaders go? The world used to have some pretty amazing people.
I uttered these words to a friend recently and immediately felt their indictment on me, my nation, my generation.

I look around me and often wonder where the deficiency in basic care and concern for our fellow men went. Sometimes, it feels like the human race has deteriorated into a mad pack of selfish seekers, each rushing to attain lofty ideals at the expense of many others.

My allusion to the past is not uncharacteristic. I frequently look back to history for instruction and inspiration. And when I get overwhelmed, (I try not to fall to pieces and freeze), I remember my ancestry of slavery and struggle and remind myself that the same thousand-warrior-strong blood of resilience flows through my veins. I sometimes forget that I am more than meets the eye. But I’m sure I’m not the only one.

So the question is, where did the drive and push that propelled one generation to greatness go? Did it get lost where it should have been transferred? Has my generation lost the essential strength gene that characterises Jamaicans? And as a result, have we entered an age of lackadaisical nonchalance, disspirited resignment and growing resentment in our youth?

And if all of the above is true, could we be sitting on a ticking time bomb?

50 Years of Independence
August 6 this year will mark Jamaica’s 50th anniversary of Independence. We will celebrate an age at which most nations boast wisdom, experience, sagacity. Jamaica, like the rest of the world, is in the throes of an economic meltdown. We’re an amazing island full of vibrant and colourful people. But, like everyone else, we have our fair share of hardships and struggles.

One area of great concern for the nation is youth empowerment. Most of Jamaica’s children formally enter the education system at the age of four years old (early childhood institutions, more commonly referred to as ‘basic schools’.). At six, most of these children begin primary-school education, from which they generally matriculate by age 12. Then on to high school, for another five years, sometimes seven, and after that, for the truly lucky, tertiary education for another three to four years. So, on average, by 23/24, ???% of Jamaica’s youth would have left a tertiary-education institution holding a bachelor’s degree or diploma certificate.

Then what?

The Gleaner newspaper’s editorial of August 16, 2011 lamented the poor engagement of the nation’s youth by the Jamaican government. Stating that nearly 60 per cent (almost 400,000) of our young people between the ages of 15 and 29 are either unemployed or out of the workforce altogether, the paper wondered if the nation was not setting itself up for revolts similar to the 2011 riots in Britain, mainly attributed to disempowered, disenfranchised and frustrated youth.

It’s a cry we hear everyday: where are the jobs? Where are the social intervention programmes? Where are the initiatives to ensure that this next generation is equipped and ready to make positive contributions to society? The popular sentiment is that these young people go through the system and remain largely unengaged, unemployed and depressed (in that order).

One young lady, Tameika, shared her frustration in a letter to the editor recently: “I have done everything that society has asked of me, and now society is failing me. … I have a student loan which I can't repay because I'm not working. The Students' Loan Bureau (SLB) doesn't understand, and wants its money.

“Are you now telling me that there is no hope for professionals? Did I waste my time going to college? Will I ever get a permanent teaching job in Jamaica? Am I ever going to finish paying off the SLB? Am I living in a failed country?”

She is not alone. Many young people in this country are asking if, after 50 years of Independence, they live in a failed and hopeless state. The statistics speak for themselves:
Economist Dennis Morrison lamented that youth (14-24 years) unemployment figures stood at 25.9% in 2008; senior sociology lecturer Orville Taylor noted that it has since risen to 31% in 2011. The World Bank reports gross tertiary-level school enrolment at a measly 25% (2009 figures). Of this percentage, 84.7% of those who leave tertiary-level educational institutions migrate to other countries to live and work (2000 figures).

It begs the question: are we, indeed, living in a failed country? Have we lost sight of the vision that carried our forefathers from slavery to Independence? And what can be done to infuse our youth with a greater sense of hope and promise, so that they, like our foreparents, will hold on through the rough times and find creative and innovative ways to not only outlast but also thrive in, and gain strength and resolve from, these challenging times?

Time for Change
The operative word is CHANGE. And this is the word that is being heralded by many. It is time, the whole country seems to agree, for positive, decisive and permanent change. What better place to start than with the youth?

  1. We have to change the education system to motivate youth. We have to teach leadership from an early age, make it part of the school curriculum, and learn to encourage individuality, as well as bring back civics, which teaches pride in one’s history and culture. I believe in career training from an early age. I believe in proper preparation for success. I believe in a system that trains leaders. Not just students. An education system that will not just shove knowledge down our childrens’ throats but will teach them how to think critically about the issues facing their nations, and emphasise individual thought, instead of conformity and repetition, solutions instead of problems.

It took me a while to realise what I really wanted to do, who I really wanted to be. And to realise that the error was not in me but in a system that taught me to think that the error was always in me.

  1. We have to change the way we view the working world. It’s time to emphasise and teach entrepreneurship as a way of life and thinking, instead of as an abstract ideal for a select few. Creativity and innovation must become ingrained in our culture if we are to step up from being a developing nation and become developed.

  2. We have to change how we engage our youth in dialog about their futures, and the future of this nation. Twenty-first century living requires 21st-century thinking, to which 21st-century technology is essential. Youth won’t be young forever. Essentially, it’s their world. We have to find better, more innovative ways to teach them how to grow into their roles and take charge of their lives, ensuring that they realise that everything they do affects the entire nation. We no longer have the luxury of living for just one.

  3. We have to change the dependent culture that we have yet to dispel in 50 years! Instead of thinking in terms of what the ‘system’ can give to them, youth have to be taught to think in terms of what they can give to the system to help mold the nation’s future. Can we build/Are we building a new mindset, which is indispensable to building a better nation?

It’s a very complex problem, and Jamaica is not the only country facing it. Other Caribbean countries have similar issues, and indeed, countries all around the world are dealing with this sudden and tremendous need to rethink their national visions and chart new paths, and finding ways to link their past with their present, while charting new routes to a brighter future. The big question is: how do we go forward? How do we create a society that encourages excellence and self-actualisation without stamping out individuality?

Jamaica is at a time where the entire nation is looking back, and looking forward. We recently concluded our eighth general election, and appointed, for the second time, a female prime minister to govern the nation’s affairs. As a nation and generation, we stand at a crossroads. We have many tough decisions ahead of us.

As Jamaica reflects, I find it is a poignant time to do my own reflection on the progress my nation has made, and to personalise the experience. I have lived for a half of this country’s independent life span. What does the nation’s 50th Independence really mean for its youth? And more specifically, what does it mean to me?

So, in this, our 50th year of adulthood, I’d like to teach Jamaica how to be a child again. I’d like to teach my country how not to be so hardened by the years of continuous struggle. And I’d like to remind our youth how to hope, and grow with outward grace and inward beauty. How to see the beauty and the blessing in our brilliant sunshine, and develop personalities that rival its warmth and resilience.

I’d like us to look back and recapture the heart that beat in our ancestors: strength, determination, vision. And I’d love it if we finally got the inheritance that rightfully belongs to us. Not the repatriation money so many are clamouring for: but the lessons learnt through history. And the wisdom of not just half a century, but more than a thousand years.

References (in order of mention in the essay)
1. ‘A Time Bomb Among The Youth’
2. ‘No JEEP for College Grads’
3. ‘Youth Unemployment On The Rise’ by Dennis Morrison
4. 'JEEP: Old Chassis But Orange Paintwork?’ by Orville Taylor
5. World Bank Databank

This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future a program of World Pulse that provides rigorous new media and citizen journalism training for grassroots women leaders. World Pulse lifts and unites the voices of women from some of the most unheard regions of the world.

Economic Power
Girl Power
Latin America and the Caribbean
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