Social Connections can Provide a Multiplying Effect for Young People

Andy Webb* is a successful manager and is recognised by his peers as a savvy networker. Using his fine-tuned networking skills, he grabbed the opportunities that came his way, shaping his work aspirations and career journey.

He owes his networking success to his mentor’s advice, which went something like this: firstly, find people doing the type of work you like to do. Then connect with them on professional networking sites like LinkedIn. The next step is a bit tricky because it involves confidence and persuasion skills: ask them to meet with you to chat about their own personal journey so you can learn from their experience. And finally, before leaving the meeting, ask them if they know other people who are useful contacts to have.

In Andy’s experience, these four steps always led him to great connections and those social networks led to work opportunities.

Andy grew up in a middle-class home with access to computers and the internet, he went to a relatively good school, got a university degree, and was able to build and leverage his social capital every step of the way. His school and home life shaped his early experiences with adults and helped to build his confidence; and his relatives, friends, teachers, and neighbours formed an integral part of his formative social network.

Conventional wisdom tells us that tapping into social networks can help unlock opportunities for young people and ignite their potential for social mobility. But what if the mere act of “tapping into” these networks is too costly or inaccessible?

Let’s take another young person’s experience to understand how context shapes access to opportunities. Vuyelwa Tshoto is a 28-year-old from Maclear in the Eastern Cape. She is completing her Master’s degree in Social Work at Fort Hare University, and she is the first person in her family to go to university. Unlike Andy, she feels like she is starting from scratch and doesn’t have established connections with anyone.

South Africa is one of the most difficult places in the world to find a job, especially for young people who may have dropped out of school or did not complete their tertiary education. A growing body of research has demonstrated the power of social networks and social status in shaping people’s ambitions, their trajectory and success in the labour market.

Those who do find work are often helped by family and friends who put them in touch with potential employers, connect them to work opportunities, or lend them money to keep looking for work, even when times are tough.

An expansive new study conducted in the United States shows that the secret to social mobility lies in connections that bridge the class divide — between rich and poor people. This study shows that informal ties between people from different socioeconomic backgrounds (social connections) promote economic connectedness. These ties are powerful and may even have a stronger impact on outcomes than a person’s school, home life and community.

But are these insights relevant in a South African context where class and race are intertwined with a long and painful history of racism, segregation and social injustice? They may be. We explain what we mean below.

Anecdotally, we have learnt from our engagements with hundreds of young people that having at least one caring adult can shape a person’s educational and life outcomes in a positive way. However, for the majority of young unemployed South Africans, the connections they need are out of their immediate reach. Many live in homes without any employed adults, and the majority live in households living on less than R1,000 a month.

Understanding these realities can be paralysing at first because we feel inadequate to address the systemic problems. While we can’t change these systems on our own, we can live in a way that honours and multiplies the power of our individual connections. We can begin to imagine a new set of relationships — a new set of connections across the fault lines that divide our society. In fact, that act would be truly radical.

The radical wisdom of ubuntu
Archbishop Desmond Tutu was a passionate proponent of ubuntu — the simple notion that “I am because you are; a person is a person through other people”. It’s not a new phrase, often repeated in conversation without intentionally thinking about its philosophy and how it can be brought into practice in different social spaces.

The notion of ubuntu is a radical proposition in a modern world where individualism trumps ideas of collectivism. If our humanity is fundamentally tied up with one another and the environment, then why are we so disconnected?

The Arch knew that we can rise to our fullest potential only if we rise together. There is something magnetically powerful about the process of connecting and sharing a range of lived experiences, with one another.

In his book, The Rainbow People of God, the Arch wrote: “If we could but recognise our common humanity, that we do belong together, that our destinies are bound up with one another’s, that we can be free only together, that we can survive only together, that we can be human only together, then a glorious South Africa would come into being…”

The work of building relationships, of recognising that our destinies are bound up with one another, is an act of creation and imagination. Building and nurturing new connections for young people are some of the ways that South Africans can shape a flying nation. It requires the act of reaching out to young people who are unlike you, and sharing your personal and professional network.

You can do it on your own, or through the range of vibrant organisations that make up the fabric of civil society such as SAYes, WeThinkCode­ or Bulungula Incubator, to name a few.

It takes one caring adult to shape a young person’s journey. There are so many people like Andy who could shape the aspirations, career paths and life trajectories of young people like Vuyelwa — it’s critical that they find each other.

*Not his real name

**First published in the Daily Maverick on 11 August 2022: