The rapidly increasing unemployment rate has had a great impact on the youth, psychologically, socially and culturally. We unpack the impact of the unemployment crisis on us.
By: Thanduxolo “Thandz” Buti
Main image: Claudia wolff – Unsplash
According to stats, the unemployment crisis in South Africa has hit a new high in 11 years, with an estimated 40% of the population unemployed. The unemployment figures have been at a steady increase over the last five years. In 2016, it stood at 26.55%, 27.07% (2017), 26. 92% (2018), 28.18% (2019), and in 2021 it is predicted to hit the 43.1% to 51.6% mark in the first quarter.
The rapid increase in unemployment is due to the covid-19 global pandemic, which saw a loss of about 2.2 million jobs. But even before the pandemic, our economy was already in distress.
According to the stats, the most affected by this job crisis are the youth (aged 15 -24), and, by the third quarter, the number of unemployed youth is predicted to rise to 55%. Many graduates are struggling to penetrate the job market and are sitting at home with their qualifications. This has forced many graduates to abandon their careers of choice, ending up in meagre jobs, like retail services, call centres, waitressing, and domestic work.
The growing unemployment among the youth results in deep psychological effects, like depression and anxiety, and suicidal thoughts. While some are suffering in silence and relying on negative coping mechanisms, others have resorted to self-harm.
Phathu Luvhego, a 30-year-old media graduate, says he has been in and out of jobs for the past ten years – unable to find permanent employment. “Life has been a misery,” he tells Blacklight.
Unhappy at his previous job, he resigned in 2020, just before the lockdown. He decided to go back to school and focus on his studies, a decision he now regrets.
“I have lost my bursary, and I need a job to continue with my studies. Socially, I’ve seen the worst of the worst. People I love and trust treat me like a failure and speak about me behind my back. My mom is the only supportive person.”
Luvhengo says the covid-19 pandemic made it further impossible for him to find alternative ways to earn a living. “Before Covid-19, I could leave a job without a job, and within three months, I would get another job. Now it has been extremely difficult. Just finding general work is a privilege,” he explains.
He adds that he has been struggling with severe depression and anxiety due to unemployment. This has seen him reaching an ultimate low in his life.
He further states that most families fail to offer support to loved ones who struggle to find employment. Instead, they neglect them. “
People distance themselves from you when you are unemployed. And you are expected to find a job as soon as possible. Some think that not working is a choice and that you are lazy and not doing enough to find a job.
“You borrow R50 from a friend then suddenly everyone knows about it. It has been devastating because some of the people you reach out to for help are the very same people you used to help when you were employed.”
Luvhengo believes that family and friends should help unemployed loved ones with “contacts (networks) and be more supportive and empathise, but don’t pity. Stop judging and gossiping about them!”
Clinical Psychologist and mental health advocate, Sikander Kalla, tells us that unemployment does not only affect our mental health; it also has a social, cultural and political impact.
“From a historical perspective, we have always had a strong tendency to link our sense of competence as adults to how well we are doing in our careers. Our assessment of how well we are doing in life has always been intertwined with how well we are doing when it comes to our job and the income it provides us. This comes with the benefit of feeling a sense of success when things are going well on the work front, but also the potential to feel a sense of failure when our job security and financial stability is threatened.”
“For a lot of South African men, notions of hegemonic masculinity revolving around manhood being asserted through maintaining traditional gender norms may add even more pressure. This may happen because of a need to put food on the table, be self-sufficient and maintain an image of having one’s life together. Fear of being excluded from the category of being what is socially constructed to be a real man may ultimately result in a sense of anxiety revolving around the loss of the aspirational identity of being a worker, an earner and provider.”
“For the youth, individuals can sometimes challenge this and express that they don’t want to be trapped by these traditional expectations. However, such individuals still function in an environment that can judge them for not subscribing to such traditional norms.”
He continues: “For women, such power differentials continue to have an impact. In the South African context, a nation ravaged by high gender-based violence and femicide, being self-sufficient helps women to reassert their independence and autonomy.”
“When you look at all of the above-mentioned dynamics, it means that unemployment can have quite comprehensive negative effects on the individual–psychologically, socially, and culturally, which can result in a sense of hopelessness and social withdrawal.”
Kalla reiterates that there is a lot of judgment and stigmatisation within society targeted at unemployed individuals or those who don’t have a source of income. “Most times, its judgment without understanding the full context. It’s as if people think that individuals wake up and decide to be unemployed, and that’s almost never the case. It’s important to integrate context and understanding and say: let me understand before I judge.”
He believes that families and loved ones need to be aware that we all need social support in one way or another. “We need to be honest and real with ourselves, that when times are hard. We all appreciate having someone to lean on. We need to look at our responsibility as parents, siblings, friends, loved ones, and as a community to not leave people in isolation, where things can get more and more overwhelming for the individual.”
“If we don’t step in with that social support and inclusion, we leave the person to explore more unhealthy coping mechanisms – substance abuse, crime etc. We complain about the consequences and the aftermath, but we don’t do anything pre-emptively on a preventative level.
This COVID-19 pandemic has shown quite clearly that people who thought they had job security and financial stability, were surprised when they lost all of it in an instant. It showed how unpredictable life is. If we remain cognisant of this, then maybe we can be more mindful and supportive to individuals who are struggling.”
Unemployment may ultimately lead to severe stress, anxiety and depressive symptoms that can leave many individuals debilitated. According to Kalla, loved ones need to monitor individuals’ routine and structure to identify such debilitation. “The first thing to look out for is social isolation and withdrawal. More often than not, this can be a sign that the person fears a sense of embarrassment and stigmatisation or feels a sense of disappointment. We are all social beings by nature, so once we start to withdraw, it begins to negatively affect our mood.
“The second priority would be looking for signs of a low mood, a sense of hopelessness and potential self-harm thoughts. The best way to do this is to monitor the person’s routine. Has there been a change in their sleeping patterns (sleeping too much or too little), using sleep as a form of escapism to avoid facing reality or experiencing insomnia because of overwhelming anxiety?”
“We need to also need to pay attention to appetite (overeating or a lack of appetite), sometimes so much so that it begins to affect the individual’s weight – increase or decrease. Lack of appetite could indicate high levels of anxiety or stress, and overeating could be a way of self-soothing. Additionally, what are their energy levels? Are they fatigued?
“These are some of the key things to look out for, so we can know when to intervene and help in a way that’s not too intimidating or invasive. We also need to be wary of taking on the other person’s responsibility or sense of accountability.”
“We can also refer the person to a public health clinic/hospital, professional healthcare practitioners such as myself or organisations like the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG), Lifeline, and national GBV support lines like the Gender-Based Violence Command Centre. These are some of the resources that individuals can contact to get the necessary assistance required to help them navigate through the psychological and social issues they face revolving around unemployment difficulties ”
To seek professional help contact:
SADAG (The South African Depression and Anxiety Group)
24hr Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0800 12 13 14
Cipla 24hr Mental Health Helpline
0800 456 789
Cipla Whatsapp Chat Line
076 882 2775
Pharmadynamics Police &Trauma Line
0800 20 50 26
Adcock Ingram Depression and Anxiety Helpline
0800 70 80 90
Department of Social Development Substance Abuse Line 24hr helpline
0800 12 13 14
Lifeline – National Counselling
0861 322 322 (24 hours/ 7 days a week)
The Gender-Based Violence Command Centre
Helpline: 080 042 8428