I was strolling on YouTube when I came across an interesting video termed ‘The Birth of a New Underclass’. I thought this referred to some western concept but by the third minute it was clear it was talking about us – my generation, the millennials! You all know how good YouTube is at packaging related videos; I had barely watched the video quarter way before I saw videos that gave us an even more dramatic characterization – we described as ‘The Lost Generation’, ‘Generation Jobless’ among others.
This information was at odds with what I have always known and the narrative most of us subscribe to – That you move up the social ladder into the middle class not to an Underclass. Obviously this got me thinking; what is the middle class anyway, what would make someone like you or me one? What I read next was applicable at a personal level but also to the work I do in leading the UReady Employability Program.
Apparently, the term ‘middle class’ was first formally used by the French to describe a certain social group between peasants and nobility. There are many tags and labels used to identify one as a middle class in different societies but one stood out for me – the acquisition of a tertiary education. This specific label is of importance to me not just because I work with graduates but because the so called ‘new underclass’ describes this group of degree holders and terms their dream an illusion.
I have been privileged to share in the joys, challenges and hopes of the African graduate youth. I know going up the social ladder is important to us – after all education is pitched to us as ‘the key of life’. And, if the middle class is a person in a social hierarchy between working class and upper class then you know working/employment is a precondition to this rise. This is where the rain starts beating us!
Clearly, tertiary education has remained the unchallenged pathway to the middle class through opening up access to employment opportunities. However, if current data tells us anything is that university education is no longer a ticket to this coveted place.
This sounds like a very negative outlook of things – if the middle class is becoming more and more of a mirage, what is left to hope for? Fortunately, there is what we can prepare our youths for called ‘The New Middle’. Thomas Friedman in his book ‘The World is Flat’ intimates that there is a new space in the social ladder that will be dominated by those able to create premium value in the new world of work. This is our commitment at UReady Employability Program – to train youths boasting not of their graduate degrees but demonstrating that they can combine knowledge from different areas to create new value. We are asking the so called ‘half baked’ graduates to ‘Ask Us About Employability’ i.e. Ask about about skills necessary to play in this new middle economy. Think of the result as- a mass communication student applying comedy to grow the employers viewership or also offering content development to companies for social media; an engineer combining design with retail sector merchandizing among others.
Could I be getting ahead of myself to even suggest that people should dismiss the middle class dream? I don’t think so, neither am I the first. The Huffington Post run an article declaring middle class ‘A Meaningless Term’. The writer gives two compelling reasons:
1). The idea of middle class has become divorced from income
2). The lifestyle we associate with being middle class is largely unachievable on a middle-class income nowadays”
So if jobs remain scanty and the middle class is a concept of a bygone era – what does the new middle graduate skills, jibs and requirements look like? Nobody knows for sure but everyone knows it is a different space altogether. What we know is that getting work (I did not say a job because the concept of a job is itself changing) will still be critical. We can already hear new terms such as ‘gig economy’ that is associated with this new middle. The gig tell us that careers of the future will not be long paternalistic relationships with an employer but short term output based engagements. In the new middle a graduate will like work for multiple employers behaving as a freelancer; her CV will no longer have bullets of positions held with an employer but will look more like a portfolio of mini projects for different employers.
So what do our youths and graduates require to create value in a gig set up. Tons of passion, boats of flexibility and top notch people skills. Take accounting for instance, few are willing to pay an accounting graduate $350 plus statutory obligations but they can pay a non-committal freelance fee of $100 for a need-based monthly freelance arrangement. In this situation, the successful new middle graduate will be the one with people skills to build a network of 10 clients for whom they will file tax returns, data entry and be on call for this USD 100 retainer per month.
Think of it as a graduate who will no longer sell a simple product like a toothpaste but a complex ERP system by Microsoft. He will require a combination of technical and business knowledge; he has to both explain a complex product in simple terms to a non techie as well as convincingly show the business value of that purchase. Mind you he will mostly be selling it to high level decision makers so his communication, networking, problem solving and commercial awareness knowledge has to be on point.
Complex ha! That is the new middle and it will handsomely reward those ready for it. We can help – Ask Us About Employability! Ask us about the skills that will matter most to you in this new middle and you do not have to worry about the middle class.