The young and the restless are befitting words to vividly depict the status quo of the countless educated but unemployed African youth; a ticking time bomb threatening the future of the continent.
Is it the lack of proper skill sets or the intermittent nature of opportunities that has resulted in the shrinking job market? This remains a puzzle yet to be unraveled. Upon graduation from tertiary institutions, the almost assured optimism by young people of landing top jobs on the basis of their qualifications is swiftly replaced with the icy glare of disillusionment. As desperation creeps in hope for a bright future slowly seeps out for many young people; moving from office to office wielding briefcases filled with job applications, whilst others frequent internet cafés to fill out a dozen more steadfast in their quest for jobs. Pushed to the brink, it is not a rarity to find young people holding placards on the highways of major cities looking for opportunities, not necessarily aligned to their qualifications, but just a job that can meet their most basic needs. The detrimental crisis is threatening the socio-economic cohesion and stability of the continent at an alarming rate.
According to the African Economic Outlook, more than 70% of Africa’s youth live on less than US$2 per day on average, which is the internationally defined poverty threshold. In reiteration, the Global Employment Trends for Youth 2020 Africa revealed that around two in every five young people of working age are in some form of employment in Africa, with a slight decline of 0.7% between 2012 and 2018 and is projected to decline by 0.1% between 2020 and 2021. By the same token, just over one in five youth were not in employment, education or training (NEET) in 2019; this state of joblessness has been steadily growing since 2012 mirroring the trends in the global rate. Skills and jobs for youth are encapsulated in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which advocates for a substantial increase in the number of youth and adults with relevant skills. The new edition of the World Employment and Social Outlook: Trends 2021 by the International Labour Organization (ILO), an analysis of post-Covid-19 pandemic employment prospects, projects global unemployment will reach 205 million in 2022, greatly surpassing the pre-crisis level of 187 million in 2019.
‘Skills for a Resilient Youth’, is the 2021 theme for the International Youth Skills Day marked annually in mid-July which is always a golden opportunity for young people, technical and vocational education and training institutions (TVET) and public and private sector stakeholders to acknowledge and celebrate the importance of equipping young people with skills for employment, decent work and entrepreneurship. Key actors are expected to gather virtually to discuss strategies to address youth unemployment, taking holistic and systemic approaches.
According to ILO, the impact that the Covid-19 pandemic has had on the labour market has been devastating, with employment projected to bounce back in 2023 at the earliest, leaving long- lasting ramifications for economies across the globe. The report further reveals that many young people have been adversely affected by the pandemic globally noting that youth employment fell by 8.7% in 2020, compared with 3.7% for adults.
ILO Director-General Guy Ryder says the employment situation in low-income countries is expected to be worse than in high-income countries. Moreover, wealthier countries that have better access to vaccines and strong fiscal support are expected to recover faster from the crisis. He further noted that the five years of progress in reducing working poverty have been eroded by the pandemic. In the same breath, he mentioned that the crisis has affected women more, threatening to reverse and undermine the progress on gender equality.
Scope of the Unemployment Crisis in Africa
Youth unemployment in Africa has morphed into a monumental crisis. Currently, South Africa, the most industrialized economy in the continent, is undergoing a catastrophic unemployment crisis. According to Statistics South Africa labour force survey, the unemployment rate rose to a new high of 32.6% in the first quarter of 2021, with the rate among youth standing at a staggering 46.3%, mostly affecting the age group of 15-34 years. Since the end of apartheid over three decades ago in 1994, South Africa has been grappling with high rates of unemployment which has trapped many citizens in poverty. However, these latest figures indicate that unemployment has reached astounding highs lastly recorded during the 2008 global financial crisis. In Nigeria, another economic giant in the continent, the unemployment rate is estimated to reach 32.5% in 2021.
The Global Employment Trends for Youth 2020 Africa indicates that Northern Africa exhibits the highest unemployment rates in the world at over 30% in 2019, projected to decline slightly to 29.6% in 2021, leading with rates for women in 2019 of as high as 57.4 percent and 37.7 percent for men. The Central African Republic also leads among the regions with the highest unemployment rates in the continent, stemming primarily from the humanitarian crisis that has plagued the country in armed conflict since 2013, displacing many employable citizens.
Aftermath of Youth Unemployment in Africa
The repercussions of the unemployment crisis among the youth have been dire, deeming them vulnerable prey for recruitment into terrorists’ groups such as Boko Haram and Al-Shabaab to advance their mission. According to the UN report on ‘Tackling Exploitation of Youth’ both male and female youth are frequently employed in support, recruitment and combat roles in terrorist groups. Nigeria’s Boko Haram is especially infamous for using young women and girls as suicide bombers. In North Africa, unemployment has greatly contributed to the refugee and migrants crisis, with escalating economic hardships forcing Moroccan and Libyan youth to flee their countries for Ceuta, the Spanish enclave and some to Europe in search for better opportunities with many unfortunately drowning at sea while making the deadly voyage. This youth discontent has also resulted in the skyrocketing of crime in countries like Nigeria, South Africa, Somalia, DRC, Mali, South Sudan and Ivory Coast. In addition, cases of wildlife crime have surged, which have crippled the tourism sectors – a vital contributor to the Gross Domestic Product in many African countries.
Youth Unemployment Births an Entrepreneurship Revolution
Indeed, necessity is the mother of invention, as evidenced in the numerous innovative businesses that have been established by youth across the continent, after hitting a dead-end with their job hunts. Many young people have ventured into entrepreneurship and it seems to be a long-term solution to help solve the crisis. The informal sector which has become a palliative for the unemployed youth, has especially registered a boom with many reaping the benefits of their informal establishments. In cognizance of its robust potential, governments across the continent are significantly investing in agencies to fund and support youth entrepreneurship whilst in tandem initiating programs geared towards assisting young entrepreneurs.
Plausible Sustainable Solutions
What needs to be done to address youth unemployment crisis Africa? A virtual meeting organized by the Alliance for African Partnership recently, as part its public dialogue series in collaboration with the Global Youth Advancement explored the theme, ‘Pathways to Resilience: African Youth and Africa’s transformation’ in an attempt to chart a roadmap on how employment opportunities for youth could be increased. It was highlighted that Africa’s university education systems are still deeply rooted in old ways of producing graduates for the public service, leaving a smaller number to join the private sector. Among the recommendations made, tertiary institutions across the continent were urged to create awareness among students on becoming job-creators as opposed to job-seekers, thereby strengthening entrepreneurial ecosystems in the continent, bridging the gap between skills shortages and broadening access to training.
There is an urgent need for establishing entrepreneurial ecosystems, a process that would transform the curricula of graduates to meet their needs by equipping them with skills to plan and launch start-ups and other business ventures before leaving universities. To turn the tide, earning whilst learning and proactively integrating young people into the labour force could go a long way in reducing youth unemployment and boosting the economy. Training providers should inherently offer training solutions that forge a career path as opposed to unrelated courses, inclining more in outcome-based qualifications.
Into the bargain, sealing divisions based on religious, political and ethnic backgrounds that have led to armed conflict in countries like DRC, Nigeria and Burkina Faso would create conducive environments for young people to thrive. Mitigating corruption, the familiar age-old vice that has for long plagued the continent, is fundamental to solving the crisis, as systems will run accordingly without bias and the youth can seize opportunities and become empowered to carry the mantle of progressing and advancing development in the continent. In the words of the late Kofi Annan, ‘A society that cuts off from its youth severs its lifeline. If they are left on society’s margins, all of us will be impoverished’