Sunday, June 16, 2024

Tragedy of young people aged 20 to 30 years becoming Kenya’s lost generation

Sarah Nyawira is 45. She lives and works in Nairobi as a customer care executive at one of the leading telecommunication firms.

She holds a Bachelor of Science degree in communication and public relations from Moi University.

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The single mother of two takes a six figure salary every month. Since she started working in 2008, Sarah has managed to acquire a prestigious maisonette in Kitengela.

She lives a decent life, and in the traditional sense of the word millionaire, Sarah is a multi-millionaire. Beneath her success is a story of struggle that still brings her to tears.


“I was born in a family of four, three girls and one boy. I was the last born. Growing up wasn’t easy,” she says. Her father died when she was seven.

“My mom did not have any formal education. After my dad died, she started toiling in farms around Mweiga as a casual labourer. At one point, in 1990, she worked at the local quarry site crushing ballast at Sh. 4 per bucket,” she says.

There were nights Sarah and her family went to bed hungry. At school in the 90s, she became very renowned for carrying plain githeri for lunch.


“I was nicknamed wa mukurugucu because of the type of food I carried to school. It did not help that my school dress was the proverbial coat of many colours due to patches, or that my shoes were gumboots cut in half, the left one a size bigger,” she says.

Despite the hardships, Sarah was a bright girl. She carried so much hope for her family’s chance at breaking free from poverty that her siblings dropped from school in her favour.

“I struggled all through university and eventually graduated and got a good job. My mother’s mud village house, which was once the laughing stock of the village, is now a prestigious mansion,” she says.

Coming out of such intense poverty, Sarah says that she made a vow to herself. “When I got my job and started earning decently, I swore at my father’s grave that I would work so hard that my kids, his grandchildren, would never have to struggle the way I did,” she says.

Sarah took her two children to the best private schools, purchased space for them at national secondary schools, and even got them a leakage during their 2013 and 2015 KCSE exams.

“My first born son has a degree in economics and statistics, and my daughter has a bachelor of education degree,” she says. Her children are 25 and 23 years old.

Since they both graduated, Sarah says that her kids have not bothered to search or hold onto jobs.

“My son has been employed five times in a span of eighteen months. He has been unable to hold a job for the past three months,” she says. “Some employers say that he is not as qualified as his degree suggests. Others say that he is lazy, entitled, and wants everything done for him at the workplace.”

On the other extreme, Sarah’s daughter thinks that she is too posh to work. Apparently, she feels that as the last born, she should enjoy her mom’s wealth instead of tarmacking like her age mates.

When Sarah got her a teaching vacancy at a secondary school in Kiambu, she rejected the job offer and claimed that she was allergic to chalk dust. “She once told me that instead of teaching, she would rather look for an older man to sponsor her lifestyle,” she says.

Sarah is now concerned, anxious, and afraid that her kids have become so used to the good life to the point of becoming spoiled brats.

“I am concerned, anxious and afraid that perhaps I have given my kids so much of a soft life that they don’t appreciate the value of hard work, patience and grit,” she says.

At the age of 25, Sarah says that her son is still docked in one bedroom at her house and has no signs of moving out anytime soon. “My children are too dependent on me. I have started worrying what would become of them if I died today or lost all my wealth,” she says. “Did I make a mistake? AM I a bad parent?”

Sarah is one parent out of millions of parents of young men and women aged between 20 and 29 years who are grappling with the reality that their children could easily become the ‘lost generation’.

This cuts across the urban and rural areas in Kenya. In the villages, communities are grappling with young, educated men in their twenties who are lost in alcohol.

Looking at 28-year-old Vincent Ngare, it would be hard to tell that he is a holder of a degree in actuarial science. He spends his days at the village pub in Mugoiri, Murang’a County. “I have lost my son to alcohol,” says his mother Regina Nyaguthii.

“He has a degree but he cannot even afford two trousers. He is now the pub cleaner and tester of illicit brews in the village. God, what did I do wrong to d-e-s-e-r-v-e this?” she says with a breaking voice.

Regina’s son is one of many young alcoholic men in rural areas where alcoholic consumption among men aged 18 to 30 years has been rated to be as high as 79 per cent by NACADA Authority.

While not too many young women have been lost to alcohol, many have turned to sponsors.

According to the findings of a study by the Busara Centre for Behavioural Economics, of all girls aged 18 to 24 years from all universities in Nairobi, one in five openly admit to having a sponsor – the euphemism for having sexual relations in exchange for money with an older rich man.

This 2020 study also revealed that girls around this age expected sex to be exchanged with money, with Sh. 5,000 being the bare minimum they could accept.

These girls expected their university boyfriends to provide gifts, outings, and meals. They expected their sponsors to provide rent, local and foreign trips, and financing for their beauty, makeup and clothing.

“Being married made men less attractive for the position of boyfriend. But being married and moneyed was the ideal attribute young women were looking for in sponsors,” the study said.

This sponsor mentality goes beyond life on campus. A good number of young women within the 20 to 30 age bracket who have reasonably good careers are also caught up in the web of sponsors.

This is the lifestyle Mary-Claret Atieno lives. Atieno, who will be turning 30 in 2022, works as an assistant auditor for a legal firm in Nairobi.

“I like my job but I want more money. I spend Sh. 60,000 on rent alone. I need at least Sh. 200,000 to finance my monthly lifestyle,” she says.

To achieve this figure, she has gotten into a relationship with two rich older married men.

“One is a politician and the other is a roads contractor,” she says. “They might be old but their money is young!” Psychologist Ken Munyua attributes this to a generation that is neck deep in the culture of conspicuous lifestyle.

“Living a conspicuous lifestyle is one of the main characteristics of this generation. They don’t want to work hard. They don’t believe in the process of job promotion and career salary increments. They want instant, lavish lifestyles, which the sponsorship arrangement provides,” he says.

According to Munyua, whereas young girls go into sponsor relationships for the money, the majority of older men are in it to feed their fixation with the women they couldn’t afford in their twenties.

“The unraveling phenomenon is that most of the older men who are sponsoring young women aged between 20 to 30 years struggled in their own twenties. They had no resources to sustain dating their flashy age mates. This caused a fixation with young women, especially those in their twenties, which they now subconsciously endeavor to feed despite being married, advanced in age, or being fathers to daughters who are in (or almost in) their twenties,” he says.

The ripples of this generation are also being felt in the corporate world. According to Perminus Wainaina, the head of recruitment and managing partner at human resource firm Corporate Staffing Limited, job seekers between the ages of 20 to 30 are the toughest to recruit.

They are not self-aware and do not appreciate the career process that defines promotions and salaries in the corporate world.

“A few years ago, people who came for job interviews believed that you had to get a job, start earning a salary, then climb up the career ladder to get promoted and make money,” he says.

“Today’s young job seekers don’t hold the career process in the same regard. They have seen people like Mark Zuckerberg who dropped out of college and became billionaires by age 23. They want this type of instantaneous success.”

Wainaina singles out situations where young job seekers are demanding salaries that are equivalent to what top multinational executives earn.

“I have interviewed candidates for small and medium firms who asked for triple the amount of salaries we had listed in the advertisement. Others have asked for salaries that are only paid by multinationals,” he says.

This portends a problem for managerial transitions. The inability of this generation to hold jobs, align themselves competitively, or commit to integrate and follow a company’s growth process means that it could be passed over when the generation currently holding management positions retires.

“The majority of managerial roles go to those within the 40 to 50 age bracket. If the 20 to 30 generation doesn’t get a cognitive restructuring, it might get to forties qualified but unskilled for management,” says career coach Kenneth Oduor.

The result of this will be employers who will opt to bypass this generation in favour of the younger 30 to 40 generation.

Inability to hold jobs and the lack of patience towards career growth has also pushed many young people in their 20s into illegal businesses that promise to make them overnight millionaires.

These businesses include online scams and money laundering. In some cases, the results of such ventures have ended as fatally as they did for Kevin Omwenga. Omwenga was 28 when his life was cut short by a bullet at an apartment in Kilimani estate, Nairobi in May 2020.

Two months to his death, Omwenga had quit his job as a car broker along Ngong Road. This left him broke to a point of struggling with rent. But between March and May 2020, Omwenga’s life changed instantly.

He moved into the expensive Galana Suites where he rented a Sh. 150,000 per month furnished apartment. He then changed his friends and started purchasing high end cars that had an estimated collective worth of more than Sh. 20 million.

Among these was a brand new high end car, a Porsche Panamera, which cost at least Sh. 14 million. Apparently, Omwenga’s sudden lavish lifestyle was claimed to have been the result of fake gold and money laundering deals.

According to sociologist Johnstone Miriti, being pioneers of the new millennium, generations born after 2000 will find it hard to navigate through the challenges of life. He says their biggest undoing is their laziness and the sense of entitlement that naturally follows.

“The hallmark of this generation is their casual approach to sex, YOLO (You Only Live Once) philosophy, deals and shortcuts in making money and their mantra of how they deserve a soft life,” he says.

There is an economic angle to this as well. According to economic analyst Geoffrey Ngetich, this generation was born just as the Moi era was ending and the economy was rebounding.

“The economy performed well from 2003. Urban population rose, university and post-secondary education boomed, poverty rates fell, and making money became a little easier. This enabled parents of children born post 2000 to provide a much better life,” he says.

Ngetich says that this generation schooled in a time when the education system also experienced some changes.

“This was the time when 4K clubs were abolished, when subjects like Music, Agriculture, Art and Craft were abandoned. Some of those subjects were very efficient in instilling work-life values that are lacking in this generation,” he says.

According to Miriti, unlike the generation before this which matured around the time the AIDS pandemic was ravaging the country, the current generation has matured at a time when HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases are manageable or treatable.

“This has created a safe space for them to lower their sexual guards,” he says. This mirrors the findings of a survey by Population Services International (PSI) which found out that up to 80 per cent of young women between the ages of 19 and 27 years in Kenya were most afraid of falling pregnant than contracting HIV through unprotected sex.

Sociologist Christina Chanya Lenjou points out that the set up for this generation can be traced to postcolonial parenting.

“Postcolonial generation parents raised their kids differently. They were the ‘achievers’ working in government and private circles who adopted an exotic lifestyle. They introduced partying like the white man whose happy valley lifestyle was dominated by partying and sexual relations,” she says.

Because children learn by observation and imitation, this adoption of a happy-go-lucky lifestyle has been gradually trickling down from children born in the 70s to children born in the 90s, and finally burst into a full storm on children born in the 2000s.

“We now have a scenario where the attraction for hard work has been replaced with an attraction for lifestyle. The students have become better than the teachers,” she says.

Crisis of Kenyan men who have refused to leave their moms’ house

Christina is however quick to point out that this generation may not be lost. But rather, it could just be different from what the society has been used to on people aged 20 to 30.

“Because of cultural diffusion, the societal fabric has become too loose to control. This has created the permeability of foreign culture in terms of general behavior, value and belief systems and substance use,” she says.

This liberalism has given rise to behavioural adaptations that go against the conservatism that dominated the 20th century generations.

A version of this feature was also published in the Saturday Magazine. The Saturday Magazine is a publication of the Nation Media Group.

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