Africa’s high youth unemployment: is population to blame? by Tighisti Amare
Sub-Saharan Africa has the fastest population growth projected between now and 2050 and the highest youth population in the world. It is crucial that governments factor this ‘youth bulge’ into national and social development planning.
Youth employment challenges in Africa are often associated with rapid population growth rates. The correlation however is not always direct, nor that simple. First, the youth bulge has not created an even unemployment rate throughout the continent. Second, it is not the numbers of young people that has created unemployment, but structural issues specific to individual countries.
At a flat rate of 11.9% in 2012 and 2013 as reported by the International Labour Organisation, compared to the current global average of 13.1%, Africa does not have high levels of youth unemployment. However due to the size of the continent, and different degrees of urbanisation and shifts in economic activities, it is very difficult to generalise.
Despite being a leading economy in sub-Saharan Africa, with almost 50% of unemployed youth, South Africa has one of the highest levels of youth unemployment in the region. Similarly, although Nigeria’s 13% youth unemployment is not well above the regional average, due to the large size of its population (around 170 million), the actual number of unemployed young people is high. On the other hand, small and land-locked Rwanda has one of the lowest youth unemployment rates globally, according to statistics from the World Bank.
Although a growing youth population is a challenge, it can not fully explain the unemployment figures in Africa. The figures instead are largely the result of specific economic and political contexts. Lack of investment in infrastructure and subsidy for sectors with potential for creating jobs for example, have created deep structural issues. In many cases, these issues predate the youth bulge.
In South Africa, for example, the mining sector employs roughly 400 thousand people with many more indirectly depending on the sector. However a series of retrenchments have caused the loss of thousands of jobs. Meanwhile, the agricultural sector, employing millions of people, is not subsidised by government and is struggling to meet wage expectations.
Levels of education in Africa are comparatively low creating a considerable skills gap among youth at working age. According to the African Development Bank, 25% of African youths are still illiterate, and despite a rise in primary school enrolment from 60% in 2000 to 77% in 2011, the issue of low skills levels in the workforce will continue to be a problem.
Although young people today are better educated than their parents, this has not lifted their prospects of finding a job. Youth remain almost twice as likely to be unemployed than their elders. This is partly because of a mismatch between their skills and what is required for available employment opportunities.
Some countries are introducing initiatives to help address some of the issues resulting from the skills gap. In Senegal, through the Agence d’Exécution des Travaux d’Intéret Public, unemployed youth are trained through temporary work on public infrastructure before getting permanent jobs. Similarly in Burkina Faso, through a modernised apprenticeship system, students both attend school and work as apprentices to learn industry specific skills.
Nevertheless, with rising numbers of people, these initiatives alone will not solve the unemployment challenge and the difficulties that come with it.
Young people need genuine education and skills training but crucially their ambitions need to be matched with opportunities. In Tanzania, for example, due to the small size of the country’s formal sector, there is a higher unemployment rate amongst individuals who have received secondary education than amongst those with lower education.
By 2050, Tanzania’s population is projected to reach 138 million, making it the 13th most populous country in the world. Currently, half of Tanzania’s population is under 15 years of age. This presents a structural challenge as the formal sector will need to expand at a much faster rate to accommodate the rising demand for jobs.
The relationship between population and youth unemployment is complex. As populations expand, a concerted effort needs to be made to avoid the destabilising factors that result from youth exclusion and lack of equitable growth. To do this, African countries need to address the systemic issues behind the problem through transformative economic policies and social sector spending.
Photograph: Martin Godwin