The International Labour Organization (ILO) just released a frightening report on unemployment worldwide. It said that more than 1.5 billion people, or half the world’s working population, are in vulnerable or insecure jobs and that 205 million workers were unemployed last year. According to the ILO, the official figure is probably an underestimate because many people have given up trying to find a job. The most unsettling aspect of the report is that 77.7 million young people between the ages of 15 and 24 are unable to find work. This is a particular problem for countries in Africa.
There are 200 million Africans in this age range, comprising more than 20% of the continent’s population. Worldwide, youth are 43.7% of the total unemployed people even though they account for only 25% of the world’s working population. In sub-Saharan Africa, about 60% of the unemployed are youth, and an average of 72% of youth live on less than US$2 a day.
Young Africans have tried to seek better opportunities in urban areas, but too often find themselves stuck in slums with little or no way to make a survival salary. Many of them end up being paid as thugs by political parties or joining militias – not because of an ideological compatibility, but because they need to eat. Criminal enterprises also recruit from this pool of the unemployed, hopeless youth. This large, desperate and restive population poses a danger for many African countries. One of the underlying causes of the sudden revolt in Tunisia was high youth unemployment. While the overall unemployment rate in Tunisia is 13.3%, it is much higher among the young.
It is still higher in many other African countries, whose base unemployment rate is high to begin with:
With rates that high, the entire population is having trouble surviving, and youth are three times more likely to be unemployed than their elders, so there are veritable armies of unemployed youth eager to make a living doing whatever they have to do to survive. An increasing number of unemployed youth are college graduates. While some do leave for the developed world, many are stuck without the funds to go abroad. They are dissatisfied with what their governments have done for them and have the smarts to connect with others to channel their discontent into action.
The Tunisian example spread to Egypt, whose population is comprised by two-thirds under the age of 30. They make up an estimated 90% of the unemployed. Even though Egypt’s official unemployment rate is 9.4%, university students facing the prospect of no jobs and ever-rising prices are the moving force behind the Egyptian demonstrations that are demanding change. The wave of youth-motivated demonstrations for change in government have reached Yemen, and though the focus is now on the Arab world, African governments should be very concerned about what their youth will do given their economically dire straits.
If unemployment of less than 15% in North African countries boiled over into demonstrations, what might be the case in Africa, where more than 20 countries have equal or higher unemployment rates?
Poor governance, corruption and systemic economic problems certainly cause much of the unemployment in African countries. However, a lack of investment in enterprises that could create jobs also is at fault. If African countries can attract more investment – both domestic and foreign – then the problem of unemployment gradually can be minimized.
Many of Africa’s countries are sitting on a powder keg. More and more youth leave school each year, whatever the grade, with little prospect of honestly earning a living. They will not tolerate being kept in such a situation forever. With a window on the world provided by the internet, young people know how their status matches that of their counterparts elsewhere, and they now see that young people elsewhere are taking steps to remedy their predicament.
If you are a government leader in Africa, don’t wait too long to tackle this issue. Young people are notoriously impatient. Ask the Tunisians and Egyptians.