How to close Africa’s generation gap
Aya Chebbi, Founder of Nalafem and Former African Union Special Envoy on Youth and Mamphela Ramphele, Honorary President of The Club of Rome.
15 January 2024
The average age in Africa is around 20. Yet, the average age of African leaders is over 60. Closing this generation gap, the biggest in the world, is vital to enable the continent to engage with the problems of the twenty-first century and to give young Africans the chance to become leaders of change.
We believe that a system of intergenerational co-leadership would transform lives and give new impetus to Africa’s system of governance with domestic and international benefits.
Africa’s adult population can be divided roughly into three generations: the independence generation that lived through colonial rule and subsequent liberation; the multiparty system generation; and the younger generations that, in recent years, have led uprisings for change.
Those of us involved in initiating the first peaceful revolutions of the 20th century understand the power of youth to bring about reform, but we are also painfully aware of our limitations under the current system. Today’s youth is the most connected, innovative and educated African youth ever. Yet young people remain largely locked out of power structures, stuck in a state of ‘waithood’ for financial and political freedom.
Some young people are reacting actively by leading peaceful protests and actions to drive positive change. Others are turning, in frustration, to exodus as an option — exhausting their youth stuck in the limbo of byzantine migration systems or facing the mortal risks of the Mediterranean. A third group feels that the only way to be heard is to join violent extremist groups promising power rather than paternalism.
Such frustration and its consequences mean young people are too often perceived by the older generations as a threat and a radical, dangerous mass. At the same time, the youth views the existing system as corrupt and sees older people as overstaying their time in power and incapable of representing the views and demographic needs of the younger generations.
Leaders inside and outside Africa must recognise this generational crisis and take steps to solve it. Conflict across the continent is already being aggravated by a lack of communication between generations and failure to take action will only make the situation worse.
We believe the solution is to embrace intergenerational co-leadership, including through the introduction of a New Generational Contract. While we believe wholly in the power of youth, millennials and Gen Z alone can’t change the world. There is a wealth of knowledge and experience to learn from the revolutionaries of the 20th century if we are to truly achieve a peaceful transition to global equity on a healthy planet for all generations.
Scholars and institutions frequently discuss such theories, but they have failed, so far, to implement concrete plans to turn their words into actions. Instead of theorising, we need a clear way forward to create a network of concerned and passionate citizens of all ages who come together to help reform decision-making processes and to agree on intergenerational programmes that can bring about political change.
These programmes must be inclusive of all citizens across generations and genders. Frameworks like the NalaFem Manifesto offer particular attention to leadership by young women.
This citizens’ network should understand that listening is as important as exchanging ideas. All generations need to start hearing and engaging in a collaborative and constructive way to the concerns and needs of each other, and to learn from the knowledge, talents and experiences of all.
At the heart of this approach should be a New Generational Contract, guided by the seven key principles that work by the St. Gallen Symposium and The Club of Rome show are important for the success of such an initiative. These principles include: responsibility towards people alive today and future generations; care for each other; collaboration; hindsight and foresight to ensure lessons are learnt from the past for the benefit of the next generation; the regeneration of natural ecosystems; and openness.
If applied correctly, such a contract can help foster more long-term thinking and regenerative strategies across business and policy-making. It can connect different generations through mutual relationships and commitments and through a common responsibility to future generations.
Done right, intergenerational co-leadership can stimulate solidarity between generations rather than tension, rivalry and dichotomy, and create the conditions and policies needed to face the social, environmental and economic challenges of the world today and tomorrow. No region can succeed if it is not led by the most energetic and skilled people, whatever their age.