(February 2009) From the recent riots in Greece to increased unemployment in urban China to anxiety over the prospect of more protests by young people throughout Europe, youth unemployment and underemployment is increasingly recognized as a potential trigger for social instability in other world regions. Africa in particular faces demographic challenges as its population of young people ages 15 to 24 increases and access to secure jobs continues to be problematic. In addition, the global financial crisis threatens to further strain labor markets and exacerbate a tenuous situation for Africa’s youth.

Beyond economic costs, high rates of youth unemployment and underemployment have social ramifications. Some youth with few job prospects and little hope of future advancement may see little alternative to criminal activities or joining armed conflicts. “Unemployed and underemployed [youth] are more exposed to conflicts and illegal activities—many of them fall prey to armed and rebel groups,” says Jorge Saba Arbache of the Office of the Chief Economist, Africa Region at the World Bank. In addition he says, “Youth unemployed and underemployed are more exposed to economic cycles,” making them vulnerable to job instability.

The World Bank’s Youth and Unemployment in Africa: The Potential, The Problem, The Promise report, released in December 2008, investigates the nature of Africa’s youth demographics and recommends policies to give its youth access to stable employment. It argues that creating viable jobs for young people is a recondition for Africa’s poverty eradication, sustainable development, and peace; and in countries emerging from conflict, access to employment for youth is integral to peace-building processes.

Africa’s Unemployed Youth and Demographic Challenge

Africa has the fastest-growing and most youthful population in the world. Over 20 percent of Africa’s population is between the ages of 15 to 24 and, since over 40 percent of Africa’s population is under 15 years of age, that number is expected to grow significantly in the coming years. According to the International Labour Office, youth make up as much as 36 percent of the total working-age population and three in five of Africa’s unemployed are youth.

“The [high] total fertility rate is Africa’s biggest demographic challenge,” says Carl Haub, senior demographer at PRB. “For 30 years, 45 percent of most African countries’ population has been below age 15. So, a constantly rising number entering the labor force ages is one of Africa’s biggest challenges.” The combination of population growth associated with high fertility rates and the slow pace of job creation in Africa presents challenges to its youth. Despite annual economic growth rates of 6 percent or more in sub-Saharan Africa in recent years, there has not been a sufficient increase in stable employment opportunities for young people. With current demographic trends, the pressure to create new jobs will only increase over the coming decades.

Migration patterns put further strain on urban areas and labor opportunities. Young people are more likely than other age groups to migrate from rural to urban areas. According to Arbache, “Empirical analyses show that rural youth migrate to urban areas to find better educational and work opportunities and a way out of poverty. Unemployment and underemployment in urban areas are associated with rural-urban migration. Young migrants often earn less than their counterparts in urban areas, but more than those in rural areas.” Despite increased rural-urban migration however, over 70 percent of the African youth population still lives in rural areas. In fact, a major finding in the World Bank report is that the average young person in Africa is not an urban resident who migrated from a village. The average young person is a poor, literate, but out-of-school female living in a rural area.

Unemployed and Underemployed

Focusing solely on unemployed youth overlooks the fact that many young people may be working but are underemployed, working shorter hours than they would like, or reaping little economic gain. In addition, in areas with few formal employment opportunities, many are left to fend for themselves in the informal economy, often beyond the scope of official employment statistics. The problem is that underemployment is difficult to measure.

“What economists call ‘underemployment’ is so difficult to define and measure because the standard of comparison, ‘fully employed’, is itself difficult to define and measure,” says Bill Butz, president and CEO, of PRB. “So is a person ‘underemployed’ if he or she is working fewer than 52 weeks in the year, or fewer than 40 hours in a week, or just fewer weeks or hours than he would like to work, or else less intensively than he might be able if well nourished and healthy? All four standards of comparison are used…and all are arbitrary. Each yields a different level of measured underemployment.”

Youth Population by Economic Activity Status in Sub-Saharan Africa, 1997 and 2007

Source: International Labour Office, Global Employment Trends for Youth 2008.

The employment distribution of sub-Saharan Africa’s youth has changed little over 10 years. In both 1997 and 2007, about half of Africa’s youth were either unemployed or “inactive,” as defined by the ILO. Defining terminology can give a clearer picture of Africa’s employment situation. “Unemployed” refers to those in the work force who do not have a job but are actively seeking work. “Inactive” refers to those who do not have a job and are not seeking work. Inactive youth may be attending secondary or higher education, but they may also be discouraged workers who are not seeking work because they feel they lack qualifications for a job, do not know where or how to look for work, or feel there is no suitable work available. In much of Africa, there are few or no formal employment opportunities for young people. While the unemployment rate in the charts above is relatively low, the figures can be misleading. Those out of the labor force may be underemployed or wish to work, but have no means to find stable employment. Young people are not considered officially “unemployed” even if they are without work and would accept a job if offered one.

Potential and Promise

While recognizing Africa’s demographic challenges, the World Bank report also sees the large youth population as an opportunity: “The demographic transition makes youth the most abundant asset that the region can claim, thus making it a window of opportunity.”

The report recommends a multisectoral approach by governments and international agencies to address the issue. Recommendations include expanding jobs and education alternatives in rural areas; building a support environment for entrepreneurship; expanding access to and improving the quality of training opportunities; and addressing demographic issues. Since most young people live in rural areas, development in agriculture and nonfarm sectors is integral to creating demand for youth labor, argues the report. Investments in irrigation, water resource management, and increased use of improved seeds, fertilizers, and better agricultural practices can fulfill the promise of Africa’s rural population.

Even in the face of the rising number of young people and current lack of employment opportunities in Africa, Arbache is optimistic. “The demographic transition is an opportunity for Africa to compete internationally. The main challenge is to employ the appropriate policies for the region to benefit from this unique opportunity.”

Eric Zuehlke is an editor at the Population Reference Bureau.