Youth, tea and appropriate jobs: aspirations in agriculture

The big messages coming out of the research that seemed to particularly hit home include:

1.    Young people’s aspirations towards the agri-food sector are as varied as young people themselves. It was clear from the papers and the ensuing discussion that it’s crucial that policy-makers recognise and reflect diversity within this group – only by understanding people’s realities is there any hope that policy will reach its intended targets.

2.    There appears to be a widespread stigma to working in farming, akin to the stigma of poverty: in relation to smallholder farming these are far too often one and the same thing.

3.    How can the agri-food sector provide the kinds of lifestyles in rural areas that attract people to urban areas? Not just in smallholder farming but in off-farm agriculture, in post-production points of the value chain

Many of these emerging themes echoed Ben White’s excellent keynote speech from the morning, and his example of the ‘tea-drinking unemployed’ in Mali. Young men whiling away their time in town drinking sweet tea waiting for an ‘appropriate job’ to come up, rather than scuttling back to the rural areas, tail between the legs, and (re)entering farming as a so-called failure. For this is an attitude that crops up across many different country contexts.

So, what is an ‘appropriate job’? What does decent work in agriculture look like? Thinking about people’s wellbeing, it should certainly encompass a sense of pride in working in a sector one believes in, that is valued and supported, not one that is stigmatised. And if agriculture is indeed so important then why isn’t the wellbeing of those who willingly engaging in agricultural activities the priority of national governments? This means addressing and reversing negative connotations of working in agriculture: it appears the stigma of poverty is now almost interchangeable as a stigma of working in agriculture – one panellist described “son of a farmer” as being an insult in some areas. Agricultural policy-makers have a heck of a job on their hands.

Youth aspirations can tell us a lot about the state of agriculture, and it’s not always a pretty picture. And going back to the question ‘aren’t we assuming too much opportunity?’, the research presented today suggests young people have a clear sense of what is within their reach and what is not, revising their expectations over time in light of their experiences. But we can learn a lot from people reaching for the stars – even those choosing to sit it out, sipping sweet tea at a roadside cafe. What do those other sectors young people hanker after have that agriculture does not? Similarly, we can learn much about what attracts people to the sector from those (brave?) young people who have made agriculture their choice. Maybe this can go some way towards making agriculture something to be proud of.

Picture: Tea drinking in Mali, from camden17’s photostream on Flickr