Graham, Lauren (2017). 'A capabilities approach to youth employment' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Cape Town 2017.


To date a great deal of research on youth employment and youth unemployment is focused on the challenge as a labour market one – what needs to be done for employers to employ more young people? Often the problem is assumed to be one of training and experience deficits with interventions focusing on providing technical or workplace skills.

In this paper I advocate for a youth development approach to employability, which is rooted in Sen’s capabilities approach (1999). For Sen (1999), “development can be seen […] as a process of expanding the real freedoms that people enjoy” (1999: 3). Thus, rather than seeing development as a measure of income outcomes only (or in the case of employability as employment and earnings outcomes), Sen advocates a much more human-centred view of development. It takes as its starting point young people themselves and what they actually want to be and are able to do (Nussbaum 2001). Such an approach is therefore youth-centred and requires researchers and those working in the field of youth development to embrace at least three key assumptions: (1) that young people have strengths, assets as well as resilience that can be built upon; (2) that we need to create spaces in which young people’s voices are heard; and (3) that we work alongside young people towards their social inclusion and greater participation in society in the present as well as for the future good.

Applying a capabilities lens to youth (un)employment is crucial as work is viewed as a key capability. Work is not simply about material well-being, although this is a central aspect of the capabilities approach (Sen 1999; Nussbaum 2001). Work is also about being able to have control over one’s environment; exercising practical reasoning; and entering into meaningful relationships or mutual recognition (Nussbaum 2001). Work (whether in the formal or informal sector) is therefore a fundamental aspect of capability and freedom as it addresses various aspects of the human condition.

Yet, much of the applied research work on youth employment in South Africa has not engaged with the capabilities approach. For this reason youth voices about unemployment and their views on what might they need are often overlooked. Getting youth employed is also often dealt with as a matter of “youth in jobs” rather than an acknowledgement that the kind of work and what it means to young people matters. A capabilities approach asks us to consider not just the young person’s labour market related skills and potential, but to work with a young person in a holistic fashion – connecting with their interests, agency, and dreams; emphasising their talent and energy; and supporting them to overcome any personal, household and structural barriers they face.

In this paper I present qualitative evidence from young people themselves about their experiences of unemployment and work seeking as well as what work would mean for them. I juxtapose these views with an assessment of several youth employability interventions that are assessed according to the capabilities approach. In doing so I am able to demonstrate the ways in which such interventions do and do not meet the needs of young people. Using a capabilities approach to youth employment I make recommendations about how interventions can become more effective in how they engage with and support young people as they seek to transition to work. 

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