Leadership and youth unemployment in Africa


A major challenge for African leaders today is youth unemployment. It is demeaning to mentally empower an individual but unfortunately make him unproductive and to create no place for him to practise the skills he has acquired. This challenge is further compounded by the often botched dreams of youth in Africa to secure employment in other countries of the world. The frustration that follows their exit from our continent, combined with their inability to secure expected kinds of job in western countries, make them easy preys in the hands of treacherous people who take advantage of their rich minds and divert them for profitability in dubious ventures.

African leaders’ failure to address youth unemployment head-on is already creating a great danger for sit-tight leaders as well as future leaders, as seen during Arab Spring. The International Labour Organization report for 2013 revealed that the weakening of the global recovery in 2012 and 2013 has further aggravated the youth jobs crisis and the queues for available jobs have become longer for some unfortunate young job seekers. Many are giving up on the job search.

The prolonged jobs crisis also forces the current generation of youth to be less selective about the type of job they are prepared to accept, a tendency that was already evident before the crisis. An increasing number of youth are now turning to available part-time jobs while others are stuck in temporary employments. Gainful employment, which was the case for previous generations – at least in the advanced economies – has become difficult to access by today’s youth.



The global youth unemployment rate, estimated at 12.6 per cent in 2013, is close to its crisis peak. As many as 73 million young people are estimated to be unemployed in 2013. At the same time, informal employment among young people remains pervasive and transitions to decent work are slow and difficult.

The economic and social costs of unemployment, long-term unemployment, discouragement and widespread low-quality jobs for young people continue to rise and undermine economies’ growth potential, while posing increased danger to leadership particularly in the African continent.

Skills mismatch in today’s labour markets has become a persistent and growing trend. “Over-education” and “over-skilling” co-exist with “under-education” and “under-skilling” with redundancy brought about by long-term unemployment. Such a mismatch makes solutions to the youth employment crisis more difficult to find and more time-consuming to implement. It is unfortunate that a lot of young people in employment are actually overqualified for the job they are doing. Society is losing their valuable skills and forfeiting stronger productivity growth that would have been achieved had these young people been employed at their appropriate level of qualification.

In developing regions, where 90 per cent of the global youth population lives, stable employment is lacking. Developing regions face major challenges regarding the quality of available work for young people. This report confirms that in developing economies where labour market institutions, including social protection, are weak, large numbers of young people continue to face a future of irregular employment. Young workers often receive below-average wages and are engaged in work for which they are either overqualified or under-qualified.

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There is a price to be paid for entering the labour market during hard economic times. Perhaps the most important danger is in terms of the current distrust in the socio-economic and political systems. This distrust has been expressed in political protests such as in the Arab Spring as well as anti-austerity movements in Nigeria (the fuel subsidy crisis), Greece and Spain.

Creative and wide-ranging policy solutions are needed. Improving youth labour market outcomes requires an in-depth understanding of employment and labour market issues that are country-specific. Analysis of youth labour markets, with particular emphasis on the issues that characterise youth transitions to decent work, is crucial for determining country-specific needs and for shaping policies and programmatic interventions. These are urgently required to break the vicious cycle that keeps so many millions of youth out of education and stuck in non-productive employment and poverty.



Regional youth unemployment rates show large variations. In 2012, youth unemployment rates were highest in the Middle East and North Africa, at 28.3 per cent and 23.7 per cent, respectively; and lowest in East Asia (9.5  per cent) and South Asia (9.3  per cent). Between 2011 and 2012, regional youth unemployment rates increased in all regions except in Central and South-Eastern Europe (non-EU) and Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), Latin America and the Caribbean, and South-East Asia and the Pacific.

Encouraging trends of youth unemployment are observed in, for example, Azerbaijan, Indonesia and the Philippines. From 2012 to 2018, the youth employment-to-population ratio is projected to decrease in all regions, except in the developed economies and European Union. The largest decrease is projected in the Asian regions, ranging from 1.1 percentage points in South Asia to 2.5 percentage points in East Asia.

In countries and regions with high poverty levels and high shares of vulnerable employment, the youth employment challenge is as much a problem of poor employment quality as one of unemployment. For instance, South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa present relatively low regional youth unemployment rates, but this is linked to high levels of poverty, which means that working is a necessity for many young people. In India, there is evidence that youth unemployment rates are higher for families with incomes over the US$1.25 poverty rate than for those with incomes under this poverty line.

We cannot fully cover all the causes of youth unemployment but attempt will be made to cover the most important ones and implications as identified by reports.

First is the rapidly growing urban labour force arising from rural-urban migration. Rural-urban migration is usually explained in terms of push-pull factors. The push factors include the pressure resulting from man-land ratio in the rural areas and the existence of serious under-employment arising from the seasonal cycle of climates. The factors are further exacerbated by the lack of infrastructural facilities, which makes the rural life unattractive.

In addition, there is the concentration of social amenities in the urban centres. This means that the rural areas are neglected in the allocation of social and economic opportunities. Youth move to urban areas with the hope of securing lucrative employment in the industries. Oftentimes, they engage themselves in illegal deals in order to raise money to secure visas to travel out of the shores of Africa, in search of “greener pastures”. Dozens of Africans die trying to cross the sea by boat into these foreign nations.

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Second, the school curricula in many African countries are outdated and cannot be used to impart acceptable global employment practices. Some scholars and commentators have argued that as far as the formal sector is concerned, the average Nigerian graduate is not employable and, therefore, does not possess the skills needed by the employers of labour for a formal employment. Often, this is attributed to the education system, with its liberal bias. The course contents of most tertiary education lack entrepreneurial contents that would have enabled graduates to become job creators rather than job seekers.



The continued rise of unemployment in Africa has serious implications. Our starting point is that youth have difficulty in the labour market because of identifiable – and remediable –deficits as potential valuable talent for employers. These include lack of work-relevant skills, lack of information and connections for acquiring appropriate skills, lack of experience and credentials that could get them started on an upward path, and limited opportunities for entry-level work that is career oriented.

Also, high rates of youth unemployment represent both widespread personal misfortune for individuals and a lost opportunity for critical national and global economic development. Moreover, unemployment among youth has been shown to have life-long effects on income and employment stability, because those affected start out with weaker early-career credentials and show lower confidence and resilience in dealing with labour market opportunities and setbacks over the course of their working lives.

The youth unemployment challenge is also particularly intense in the developed world. In Spain, a youth majority (51.4 per cent) were unemployed as of the third quarter of 2011, and the figure was nearly as high in Greece (46.6 per cent). The youth unemployment rate in Portugal was 30.7 per cent and in the UK 22 per cent. (“The Jobless Young: Left Behind,” The Economist, September 10, 2011).

In the developing world, high youth unemployment represents lost potential for national economic transformation, and high numbers of economically frustrated youth may contribute to social instability.Bubbling with energy and radical ideas, these youth could be used for destabilising influence by the politicians who may wish to capture power at all cost or unleash mayhem to their political opponents.

The presence of large armies of unemployed youths is a clear case of failure of leadership to utilise abundant human and natural resources in the country to create jobs that will engage the youth in productive and meaningful economic activities.Besides, the unemployed youths have become prime targets for political violence; they have been used as local militants to attack, bomb, vandalize and destroy oil pipelines, lives and properties. With this, all kinds of kidnapping including those of the political opponents their relatives have spread thus creating a general state of insecurity.

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Furthermore, another implication of youth unemployment is the resurgence of urban urchins popularly called “area boys” in Nigeria. This set of unemployed youths is mostly found in urban towns and cities. These youth could be manipulated by the politicians for a mere token. These groups, besides being used as political thugs, they can also be used for activities that could undermine electoral processes, including ballot box stuffing, ballot box snatching, killing and maiming of political opponents.

In addition, there has been increase in the involvement of youths in various anti-social activities and offences as a result of unemployment. Such offences include; arson, assault, murder, abduction, terrorism, stealing, armed robbery, sex offences, unlawful possession of arms and so on. A large number of youths are into antisocial and criminal activities largely as a result of unemployment. This has the potential to destabilize and truncate the democratic processes across Africa.



African governments must play their constitutional roles by creating an enabling socio-economic and political environment, as well as provision of necessary infrastructure, to make the industrial climate investment-friendly. This will attract potential investors and thereby create jobs in order to absorb the unemployed youth.

Five key policy areas that can be adapted to national and local circumstances include:

(i)  Employment and economic policies to increase aggregate demand and improve access to finance;

(ii) Education and training to ease the school-to-work transition and prevent labour market mismatches;

(iii)            Labour market policies to target employment of disadvantaged youth;

(iv)            Entrepreneurship and self-employment to assist potential young entrepreneurs; and

(v) Labour rights that are based on international labour standards to ensure that young people receive equal treatment.


These policies revolve around improving active employment policies – particularly for young people and other vulnerable groups, establishing social protection floors, promoting international labour standards and strengthening the coherence of economic and social policies.

In conclusion, it is essential to refer to the International Labour Organisation conference resolution in June 2012 that, to tackle unemployment, governments should:

  • Strengthen quality apprenticeship systems and other school-to-work transition programmes in collaboration with the social partners;
  • Provide career guidance and facilitating acquisition of work experience with a view to promoting decent work;
  • Support the provision of youth entrepreneurship measures;
  • Explore voluntary technical cooperation programmes, bilaterally or together with international organisations, as a means to share “best practices” in addressing youth employment;
  • Request the ILO, OECD and other international organisations to work with national institutions in order to better understand the situation of young people and implement national youth employment initiatives with the support of the social partners.


Essentially then, in order to combat youth unemployment on the continent, there is need for a talent-focused perspective that offers a framework and rationale for business investment, as well as taking concrete steps that will help create innovative, effective, and sustainable solutions to the challenge.LERE LEADER


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