Opinion: The tipping point

POSTED: 08/31/11 1:07 PM

There is an old and politically highly incorrect joke about Surinamese people who opted to go to the Netherlands after their country became independent in 1975. Unemployment among Surinamese was sky-high at the time and a regular topic of sometimes bitter debate.
The joke is about a demonstration of Surinamese who trekked through the center of Amsterdam with banners that read something like “we want work!”
An employer who came across the protest march stepped off the curb and addressed one of the protesters.
“I have a job for you,” he said, to which the Surinamese famously answered, “Why are you picking on me? There are at least a thousand others to choose from.”
This is obviously a typical example of extreme and cynical stereotyping, and jokes like this have long since gone out of fashion.
The notion that people who are unemployed find themselves in that situation simply because they do not want to work has been around since Adam and Eve.
St. Maarten has a serious youth unemployment situation on its hands. We see now that the government has taken the initiative to develop a training program designed to help at least 250 people find suitable employment.
That’s a good step, no doubt about it, but in the meantime there are others who do not have the patience to follow training, or who simply want to do a decent manual job – and they want to do it now.
Cut to Sucker Garden: there, a group of young men stood up saying “We want work!” Unfortunately the company they turned to sent them away with the proverbial flea in their ear.
The heated question is now whose fault it is that these youngsters are liming instead of working. We’re treading carefully here, because we feel that these youngsters, unlike many others, are sending a serious message to our communities. They want to work. They may not be qualified for a high-skilled profession, but they are showing a genuine preparedness to take action, to do a job they’re able to handle. They even have trucks and tools at their disposal, so they could be deployed anywhere, not just in Sucker Garden.
Maybe Waste-In-Place, the company that sent them away will get second thoughts after the youngsters sought publicity. And maybe there are others on the island who think: hey, we could use those guys.
The youngsters are still in an upbeat mood, though some of them have started to sport black tee shirts as a way of expressing their dissatisfaction. Next, they could be marching on the government building (or on the office of MP Romain Laville), and after that they could resort to blocking roads and others means of civil disobedience.
There is in every society, as writer Malcolm Gladwell notices in his enthralling study The Tipping Point, a moment when things shift. A neighborhood is able to accommodate an x-number of potential criminals and still be a decent neighborhood. But when the number of bad guys crosses a certain threshold, the neighborhood suddenly becomes “a bad hood” and from that moment on there is no way to turn back the hands of time.
We feel that something similar is brewing among unemployed young people. Liming takes you only that far in life and, contrary to what many people think, the majority of youngsters does not want to pursue a criminal career. The majority of youngsters, just like the majority of all people, want a normal life with a meaningful job, a roof over their head, food on the table and love and intimacy between the sheets.
Nobody knows where the tipping point is exactly. Unfortunately there is only one way to find out. By doing absolutely nothing politicians could silently hope that the problem of unemployment will go away. The private sector could join them in this exercise. But this is not going to work; it is an attitude with potentially dangerous consequences.
So if youngsters step up to the plate and say that they want to work, like the group in Sucker Garden, chances are remote that they will say to a potential employer, “Why are you picking on me?”

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