During a chat with Mtuseni the other day, I mentioned a friend — an established professional — who was having a hard time finding a job. And Mtuseni’s response was, “Well, y’all have 3 to 5 jobs per person out there, so how can it be hard?” Clearly his economic stats are a little off, so I quickly explained to him the long recession here and got a perfunctory “okay” back.
In my mind, the US job market isn’t important as far as Mtuseni is concerned; it’s the serious lack of jobs in South Africa. Especially for young people, where unemployment is about 50 percent. Mtuseni understands this better than I do; he sees the reality of it all around him. Yet it doesn’t seem to be lighting a fire under him in terms of doing extra work to be able to compete for scarce jobs with millions of other college grads. His lack of urgency and learned-helplessness excuses have been an ongoing source of conflict between us that is reaching a boiling point — and we had a major battle about it this week.
I have not invested thousands of dollars — and hours — to have this kid finish college only to sit aimlessly watching the sun cross the sky day after day like the people in his settlement. Mtuseni criticizes their lack of ambition and drive, yet has his own internal braking system when it comes to going the extra mile. Maybe it’s an ingrained sense of pessimism, or lack of self-confidence, or fear of success. The psychology of this kid is getting more complex, and is tough to navigate and resolve from afar. I’ve got to get him here this summer so we can have some long, face-to-face talks… but the nightmare of obtaining a US visitor visa for him is a story for another day.
And buried inside this larger challenge is Mtuseni’s comment about jobs here. I’ve come to realize that the lack of regular access to newspapers, TV, and the Internet means that much of Mtuseni’s ‘news’ comes through the grapevine. He’s submitted blog posts to me that I’ve rejected outright because they are based on completely false information. He is sometimes so misinformed that it’s shocking — and truly sad for a kid who really is so thoughtful and bright.
So the comment about “3 to 5 jobs per person” really stuck with me. What is his perception of life in the United States? What do he and his peers imagine it’s like here? Do they think we all drive Bentleys like the Kardashians? I remember telling Mtuseni once about poverty in the Mississippi Delta. He was surprised, and I think on some level he refused to believe me.
That little “factoid” he tossed out opened my eyes to a vision of the United States that perhaps many people in developing countries share. And I suppose that, compared to the reality of shack settlements and millions of unemployed youth, it does seem that Americans can pick and choose jobs freely. But what Mtuseni needs to understand is that the lack of jobs in South Africa is exactly why he needs to be networking and doing interview prep and writing a good CV. Kids in the US do it, and by his accounts there are “3 to 5” jobs just waiting for each of them. The competition he’ll face next year for a job will be like jackals fighting over roadkill.
I keep running into a brick wall trying to get him to see this, and act on it. It’s frustrating, infuriating and exhausting. And I fear that all of our shared hard work will be for naught. So I’ll put on my crash helmet and take another run at smashing that wall. But truth be told, I’m beginning to wonder how many more runs I have in me…