Published online by Cambridge University Press: 27 July 2018
On 17 December 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian vegetable seller set himself on fire after a police officer confiscated his van, slapped him and spat on him. Bouazizi's extreme reaction to this humiliation sparked a revolution in his country and was the catalyst for the Arab Spring, the beginning of huge political upheaval across North Africa and the Middle East. The vegetable vendor's self-immolation, however, also became powerfully symbolic because of the ways in which his struggles to find decent employment, and his dejection rendered ultimately unbearable by a police officer's affront, resonated across borders. The images of young people's struggles from Tunisia to Egypt appeared on the screens all over the globe and stirred imaginations in vastly different contexts. The momentous events that Bouazizi's act set in motion signalled how deeply felt this shared alienation was, as well as laying bare the explosive potential of young people's frustration. A few years later, when the emancipatory possibilities of the Arab Spring were put in question by complex political power struggles, I sat in a crowded Sierra Leonean market as young traders still remembered the actions of their peers across the Arab world and envied what they saw as bravery in protesting a predicament they understood well. ‘An idle mind is the devil's workshop’, they argued, hinting at the destructive capacity of those whose aspirations remain unfulfilled. This book is an exploration of the power of the stories we tell about unemployment, the frustrated aspirations of those out of work in Sierra Leone and what they might tell us about the incendiary consequences of exclusionary labour markets in different places.
Youth unemployment has increasingly come centre stage in policy discussions across the world. Economic adversity and a lack of jobs have placed young people in limbo, the symbol of a generation in crisis, varyingly characterised as ‘waithood’ (Honwana 2012: 3), ‘blocked transitions to adult life’ (Utas 2003: 6), ‘timepass’ (Jeffrey 2010: 5) or even ‘social death’ (Vigh 2006b: 104). Unemployment has been presented as an ‘epidemic’ (RTI International 2016) and is listed in the World Economic Forum's (2016) risk landscape as leading to increased polarisation within societies.