In general, Africa does not have a high level of youth unemployment. During the past couple of years, Africa has maintained its youth unemployment at around 12 percent which is close to the global average of 13 percent. However, the large number of countries on the continent, the varying degrees of urbanization and differences in economic activities that have led to structural imbalances, means it is difficult to generalize youth unemployment on the continent.
Rapid population growth in many African countries is often blamed for the youth unemployment challenges faced by many countries on the continent, but this correlation is far too simplistic. Despite a youth bulge witnessed in several countries, the fact that unemployment rate among the young is not even across the continent points to other underlying factors, including structural issues specific to individual countries.
For instance, although South Africa is one of the leading economies on the continent, it has over 55 percent youth unemployment, one of the highest in the world. Similarly, though the rate of unemployment among the young in Nigeria is closer to the world average of 13 percent, the large population of more than 180 million people means a higher number of youth in the country are unemployed. Meanwhile, in tiny, land-locked Rwanda with a predominantly young population the rate of unemployed youth at 0.7 percent is the lowest in the world.
It is apparent that although a growing youth population is a challenge, it cannot fully explain the youth unemployment figures in Africa. More likely, it is a combination of specific economic and political issues which have led to deep structural issues that predate any youth bulge, including lack of investment in infrastructure and lopsided subsidies to sectors for creating jobs.
In South Africa, for example, the mining sector, which employs around half-a-million people and accounts for a fifth of the country’s GDP, is heavily subsidized by the government despite recent retrenchments that have caused the loss of thousands of jobs. Meanwhile, the agriculture sector, which employs millions of people is scantily subsidized and is struggling to meet wage expectations.
Moreover, the education level in many African countries is comparatively low and this creates a considerable skills gap among working-age youth. According to the African Development Bank, 25 percent of African youths are still illiterate and despite a rise in primary school enrolment from 60 percent in 2000 to 77 percent in 2011, the issue of low skills levels in the workforce will continue to be a problem for the continent. Also, because of a mismatch between skills acquired by the young and what is required by the market, youth remain almost twice as likely to be unemployed that their more experienced elders.
The relationship between population and youth unemployment is quite complex and solving it requires addressing the underlying systemic issues. Transformative economic policies and social sector spending are needed to avoid the destabilizing factors that result from youth exclusion and lack of equitable growth.