Africa’s youth employment challenge: what’s youth got to do with it?

Published on 9 July 2018

Research Officer

Philip Mader

Research Fellow

Africa has the youngest population in the world. Just over 10 years from now, 30 million young Africans (PDF) are likely to be entering the African labour market each year. Getting young people into jobs has risen to the top of many national governments’ and international donors’ priorities, including the UK.

This week, policymakers and practitioners from around the world will gather in South Africa for an event on Boosting youth employment in sub-Saharan Africa organised by IDS researchers linked to the DFID Knowledge, Evidence and Learning for Development (K4D) programme in collaboration with Wilton Park, as part of its series of Youth Dialogues. If you’re on Twitter follow #WorkForTheFuture and join in the discussion.

Two decades of relative stability and economic prospertiy have had little impact on unemployment and underemployment in Africa

How will they deal with the fact that two decades of relative stability and economic prosperity in Africa has had little impact on the daily reality of unemployment, underemployment, informality, and low-quality work for its workers, particularly the younger ones?

Given that African populations are so young, you could argue that the employment challenge is, in essence, also a youth challenge.

In fact, young people are between 1.5 and 2.5 times more likely to be unemployed than older adults in most African countries. But this does not mean that the causes of the employment challenge are necessarily youth-specific. Neither does it mean that younger Africans lack the skills, education or attitudes that would help them find work – as is heavily implied by the strong focus of many donor programmes on delivering education and training.

It almost goes without saying, many young people in Africa face extremely challenging job markets.

But what sorts of barriers affect younger Africans more than older Africans?

New research finds that the less obvious barriers to youth employment in Africa matter the most

Our most recent K4D publication for DFID and Irish Aid unpacks this question by asking How youth-specific is Africa’s youth employment challenge?

We find that the most obvious barriers may matter least, and the least obvious ones matter most.

With regards to the “most obvious barriers”, our evidence review has found that:

  • Insufficient education and qualifications is clearly not a youth-specific problem.

With access to education massively expanded, today’s young Africans are better-educated (on average) than any generation before them.

Primary school completion has risen from around 50 per cent during Structural Adjustment to nearly 70 per cent, and lower secondary school completion even more impressively, from 24 per cent in 1990 to 43 per cent in 2016.

Problems with quality, of course, remain – some education systems deliver low-quality learning, the wrong skills, or unfair expectations – but these issues are not youth-specific at all.

Purely based on educational merit, younger people in Africa ought to be much more likely to find employment than older people.

  • Problematic business environments exist, but evidence that they affect young people differentially is weak

Problematic business environments stifle entrepreneurs in many African economies from generating (or maintaining) economic growth. However, we find little support for arguments that young people are disproportionately or differently affected by business environment-related institutional constraints.

Young entrepreneurs do not seem to report being disadvantaged by the business environment factors in ways different from adults.

Of course, young people could be disadvantaged by labour laws and policies that discriminate against them. For instance, downsizing and hiring freezes often negatively affect young people. In addition, existing labour laws, while inconsistently enforced, tend to protect labour market ‘insiders’ who already have jobs – typically adults.

However, evidence of how business reform and legal reform may specifically benefit young people in practice remains particularly sparse.

Poor state of Africa’s infrastructure does not make employment any harder for young people than it does for older people

Here, again, there can be no doubt that better roads, transportation, or electricity could bring greater prosperity to many places. But there is little reason to believe that it makes employment any harder to get for younger than for older people.

This might be slightly different when it comes to information and communication technology (ICT) infrastructures, as younger people are more likely to use ICTs.

Yet, while young people may be more technologically connected, the picture becomes very muddy with regard to claims that significant numbers of young Africans are innovative so-called digital natives who are ready and waiting to use ICTs to catapult themselves (and their countries) into a new, digital economy.

With regards to the least obvious, barriers, we find strong evidence elsewhere around the more informal, or invisible, barriers:

  • Young people in Africa are often faced with quite constraining social expectations

This is especially the case for young women, whose employment options appear especially limited by gender norms.

Societies often do not recognize the types of work that many young people successfully do, be it small-scale enterprise or working in industries such as motorcycle transportation, as ‘proper’ jobs.

Moreover, prospective employers often hold implicit biases against younger applicants – the well-known Catch-22 of needing work experience to get work experience.

  • Social networks and the effects of patronage systems and politics – young people less likely to have the right contacts

In environments where there are many more job seekers than jobs, as is the case in Africa, ‘who you know’ matters immensely, and younger people are less likely to have the right contacts – they are more likely to know other young job-seekers. Where local politics and patronage matter to finding a job, young people are very rarely at the top of the pile.

Our evidence review was only able to scratch the surface. Fortunately, we find that policymakers increasingly share in the consensus that much better and more context-specific evidence is needed on the particular challenges and choices young individuals face.

Are the causes of Africa’s youth employment challenge youth-specific or part of a bigger problem?

Addressing Africa’s youth-employment challenge requires a clearer understanding of which causes are specific to young people, and which ones are broader, structural or systemic problems.

Clearly, important evidence gaps remain about how ‘youth-specific’ causes of Africa’s youth unemployment challenges truly are.

Better understandings of the very different needs, expectations, and potentials of different young people – rural school-leavers, urban graduates, growth-oriented entrepreneurs, women and men, from rich or poor backgrounds – will inform better-targeted solutions.