Youth Unemployment Dilemma in Africa: An Examination of Recent Data

Africa is a young continent with almost 60% of its population under the age of 25 years. However, many young people on the continent of Africa are unemployed or underemployment. This means that many young people settle for low wage and low productivity jobs, including in the informal sector.
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Photo by Dr Josiah Sarpong on Unsplash

Africa is a young continent with almost 60% of its population under the age of 25 years. The current population of Africa stands at 1.3 billion, and this has been projected to nearly double in size by 2050.  Currently, the median age of African countries stands at 20 years old, where Niger is the youngest country with a median age of 15 years, and Mauritius, the oldest country has a median age of 38 years (Figure 1). The rise in Africa’s population implies that the demand for jobs will steadily increase over time. Figure 1: Population of Select African Countries and Median Age

Figure 1: Population of Select African Countries and Median Age

Undoubtedly, the youth are Africa’s biggest economic resource, and this is an important opportunity to help boost economic growth and development. However, many of the youth are unemployed and experience a lack of economic opportunities on the continent. One of the challenges confronting many African governments is how to provide better economic opportunities for more than 250 million youth on the continent. While 10 to 12 million young people enter the labor market each year, only 3 million formal jobs are created by African countries, leaving the majority of the youth unemployed or forcing them to settle for low-paid and low productive jobs in the informal sector to make ends meet. Figure 2 shows that unemployment among the youth on the continent is the highest compared with those who are 25 years and above.

Figure 2: Unemployment Rate by Age

On a general level, unemployment is one of the most pressing economic concerns confronting many developing countries, with young people disproportionately affected by it. Moreover, the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the rise of the unemployment rate globally. The most recent round of Afrobarometer study conducted in 34 countries between 2016 and 2018 found that “unemployment” was considered the most important problem African governments must address. Youth people between the ages of 18 to 25years and 26 to 35 years all indicated unemployment as the most pressing issue their governments must address across all the 34 countries (see figure 3 & 4).

Figure 3: Most Important Issues | 34 African Countries

Figure 4: Most important Problem by Age | 34 African Countries

According to the latest International Labor Organization (ILO) 2020 estimates, the global unemployment rate stands at 5.42% in 2020. As shown in Figure 5, there are large regional disparities in unemployment rate: Africa has the highest unemployment rate at 6.8%, followed by Europe and Central Asia (6.6%) and the Americas (6.6%), with Asia and the Pacific region having the lowest unemployment rate at 4.4%.

Figure 5: Global and Regional Unemployment Rate (Age 15+)

However, across the regions of the world, Africa has the lowest youth unemployment rates (11%) as compared to Europe and Central Asia (16%), Americas (15%), and Asia and the Pacific region (14%) (Figure 6). 

Figure 6: Youth Unemployment Rate (age 15 -24) by Regions

At the regional level, Southern African countries have the highest youth unemployment rate in Africa, which stands at 53% in 2019, followed by North African countries (30%), West Africa (10%), Central Africa (9%), and East African countries (6%) (see Figure 7). 

Figure 7: Youth Unemployment Rate by African Regions

At the country level, South Africa (56%), Egypt (51%), eSwatini (47%) Namibia (41%) and Botswana (38%) have substantially higher youth unemployment than the rest of African countries. Countries such as Ethiopia (3%), Kenya (7%), Uganda (3%), and Tanzania (4%) have the least youth unemployment rate. (ILO, 2019). (see map below).

Figure 8: African Countries: Youth Unemployment Rate (%) Aged 15 – 24 (2019)

Although Africa can be seen to have the lowest youth unemployment rate across the globe (see Figure 6), this does not reflect the actual reality of unemployment confronting the youth, or the realities of the labor market in Africa. In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, the unemployment rate is relatively low since the majority of young people if employed are under-employed and more likely to be working poor thus earning income below the poverty line (US$1.90). It is also likely that many youth report employment despite working in disadvantaged conditions in the informal sector. The informal sector employs about 80% of people in some African countries, and mainly 9 in 10 workers are women and youth. Although many young people are employed in the informal sector, it does not provide the opportunity for growth and skills enhancement. In addition, the working conditions are not favorable to provide an escape from poverty.  From Figure 9 below, Africa’s working young people account for 38% of those working poor compared to the global rate of 13%, and more women are likely to be working poor than men. 

Figure 9: Working Poor by Region, Youth and Gender

Apart from the higher working poverty rate facing many young people, nearly 21% of African young people are neither employed, receiving education, nor in training. This is more prevalent among women (26%) than men (16%) in 2020. The young people in this category of not in employment, education or training (NEET) implies that they are not gaining the relevant skills and experience to contribute to the economy or escape the grip of poverty.

Figure 9: Share of Youth Not in Employment, Education or Training (NEET)

Reasons for the High Youth Unemployment Rate in Africa

Studies have concluded that youth unemployment is attributed to a skills mismatch between skills acquired in school and skills required in the labor market. This has resulted in many young people, particularly graduates, not having the relevant skills to make them employable and competitive in the workforce. The 2017 ILO estimates show that across Africa, the youth unemployment rate among those with an advanced or intermediate level of education is higher than for those with basic education. In Mali, young people with advanced and intermediate education are more likely to be without a job than those with basic education. The rates are similarly high in Tunisia, Egypt, and Cape Verde (see Figure 10). 

Figure 10: Youth Unemployment Rate by Level of Education (2017)

The higher unemployment rate among the youth is also due to the fact that limited formal jobs are created to absorb the number of new graduates entering the labor market each year. Instead, youth with higher levels of education settle for low productivity jobs. The fact that many young people with advanced levels of education are facing unemployment is a serious cause of concern which requires immediate intervention since the consequences of this are the growing prospect of political and social unrest and even the migration of young people out of African countries.

In response to the youth employment challenge, many African governments are embarking on interventions and programs to provide employment opportunities for young people with a focus on practical skills development and acquisition to make them employable in the labor market. For instance, the government of Ghana recently introduced the Nation Builders Corps with the aim of providing temporary employment and skills improvement and employability of unemployed graduates. The government of Kenya together with the World Bank also launched the Kenya Employment Opportunities Project to train and provide employment opportunities to young people across Kenya.

These interventions and programs are steps in the right direction in resolving the employment challenges facing young people. However, African governments must prioritize skills development in their educational system by investing in quality education and entrepreneurship training that equip young people with skills employers need. African governments must also invest in a broad range of programs such as Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) and social sciences, as well as technical and vocational education that focus on skills development and training that are relevant to the socio-development of African economies.

Young people are not gaining the requisite skills required for the labor market due to limited internship opportunities or exposure to the industry, particularly for college students. An internship is one of the ways a college student can gain relevant work experience for the workforce. However, students on the continent of Africa find it difficult to find an internship placement much less one that pays. African universities should work with industry players to establish internship programs to give college students exposure to the work environment and opportunities to gain relevant market-driven skills that will make them competitive and employable in the labor market. 

To address the youth unemployment challenge on the continent, African leaders must diversify their economy from over-dependence on natural resource exports to value-added products that enable job creation on the continent. For instance, the agricultural sector alone accounts for 50% of total employment in sub-Saharan Africa, and investment in the agriculture sector and the food system will help generate job opportunities needed in the economy. 

African leaders must also develop policies that support small businesses and young entrepreneurs to thrive and succeed such as making financing more accessible. In addition, governments must address the infrastructure deficits affecting business productivity on the continent such as high-speed internet connectivity and electricity supply shortages which constraint entrepreneurial activity and job creation on the continent.

While young people are the ones disproportionately affected by the challenge of unemployment and are also the majority of the population in African countries, African governments will benefit immensely from its young population if their potential is harnessed through proper investment in their education and skills.

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