Analysis

Africa’s Youth Unemployment Crisis Is a Global Problem

Governments and donors must stop focusing solely on skills development and entrepreneurship—or risk more youth migration, unrest, and terrorism.

By , a writer and international affairs analyst from Ghana.
Students gather in an amphitheater at the Université Thomas Sankara near Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso on Oct. 15.
Students gather in an amphitheater at the Université Thomas Sankara near Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso on Oct. 15. ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP via Getty Images

Africa has the world’s youngest population, with a median age of 19.7 years. Such a large youthful population might ordinarily symbolize an ample and energetic workforce, a boon for the development prospects of any region. But the dire employment situation for young people across Africa continues to snuff out their potential. According to the African Development Bank, in 2015, one-third of Africa’s then 420 million young people between 15 and 35 years old were unemployed, another third were vulnerably employed, and only 1 in 6 was in wage employment.

Although Africa has the lowest unemployment rate globally on paper among youth ages 15 to 24 (10.6 percent in 2021, according to the International Labor Organization), the majority of Africa’s youth work informally, and many are underemployed or remain in poverty despite working due to low wages and the lack of a social safety net, making it difficult to compare African countries to more advanced economies.

The African Development bank reports that while 10 million to 12 million youth enter the workforce in Africa each year, only 3 million formal jobs are created annually. African youth have no choice but to work, because most countries on the continent have little or no social protection. According to the African Development Bank, it is therefore common to see humanities and social sciences graduates driving taxis in Algiers and Cameroonian engineers ferrying passengers on commercial motorcycles in Douala.

Africa has the world’s youngest population, with a median age of 19.7 years. Such a large youthful population might ordinarily symbolize an ample and energetic workforce, a boon for the development prospects of any region. But the dire employment situation for young people across Africa continues to snuff out their potential. According to the African Development Bank, in 2015, one-third of Africa’s then 420 million young people between 15 and 35 years old were unemployed, another third were vulnerably employed, and only 1 in 6 was in wage employment.

Although Africa has the lowest unemployment rate globally on paper among youth ages 15 to 24 (10.6 percent in 2021, according to the International Labor Organization), the majority of Africa’s youth work informally, and many are underemployed or remain in poverty despite working due to low wages and the lack of a social safety net, making it difficult to compare African countries to more advanced economies.

The African Development bank reports that while 10 million to 12 million youth enter the workforce in Africa each year, only 3 million formal jobs are created annually. African youth have no choice but to work, because most countries on the continent have little or no social protection. According to the African Development Bank, it is therefore common to see humanities and social sciences graduates driving taxis in Algiers and Cameroonian engineers ferrying passengers on commercial motorcycles in Douala.

Africa’s youth employment problem is a global problem. The world can’t achieve and sustain global development with a large segment of youth alienated and unprepared to lead their continent and the world. Hordes of struggling African youth will continue to migrate en masse to developed countries. And foreign investors can’t be assured of peaceful business climates in Africa, as poverty and inequality fuel looting, insurgencies, and terrorist activity on the continent.


Studies have highlighted mismatches between the skills African students obtain at school and those required by employers. African governments and development partners have therefore attempted to address the employment challenge, mainly by implementing skills development programs for employment in high-priority sectors such as agriculture and manufacturing, and promoting entrepreneurship in these areas. Youth enrolled in such programs learn technical and vocational skills, as well as other life skills to help them find employment and run their own businesses.

But focusing on these solutions alone excludes young people who are not inclined toward entrepreneurship, as well as those with other skills and capabilities that could be nurtured with alternative means of support. Indeed, it perpetuates the very cause of Africa’s youth employment problem by concentrating the talents of youth in a few professional areas to the exclusion of many others.

According to a Brookings Institution report, such interventions do not have a good track record in developing countries. Just a small number of young entrepreneurs in sub-Saharan Africa find success, and they are rarely able to subsequently hire fellow young Africans. African labor markets are also not able to absorb the available skilled workers. Moreover, surveys in rural Ghana and Uganda showed that young people in these regions often struggle to get the funding they need to start a business or land to farm on, and they don’t benefit from government and donor initiatives—particularly concerning as two-thirds of new job seekers across Africa live in rural areas.

African societies have long valued professions like medicine, law, and business, while creative fields such as writing, art, music, drama, and fashion are regarded as hobbies.

Africa’s youth employment crisis has been a long time in the making. An adequate solution to this problem requires addressing its root cause: the lack of job creation in many professional fields. Africa’s slow pace of development is not the only reason for its limited range of jobs.

African societies have for a long time valued a few professional fields to the exclusion of many others and have therefore not created ample jobs in less popular fields. Fields such as medicine, law, business, and economics are highly regarded, so parents push bright children to pursue courses in these areas. Many students who do not initially get to study such subjects later pursue work in related areas, both for the prestige and because jobs are more abundant in these fields.

Creative fields such as writing, art, music, drama, and fashion are often regarded as hobbies. Many African parents discourage or prevent their children from pursuing careers in these fields. It’s little wonder that such renowned African writers as Chinua Achebe, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Tsitsi Dangarembga all initially studied medicine.

To reverse the continent’s employment woes, Africans would need to begin appreciating the utility of all careers. African governments must introduce policies that shift the educational focus from passing exams to exploring a degree’s actual applications to society. African governments, together with the private sector, must actively create jobs related to all professional fields. Development partners can advise African countries on creating jobs in less popular fields, because their countries have successfully employed their talent in such fields.

For instance, plenty of jobs could be created for students graduating with botany and urban planning degrees. African cities and rural areas need more botanical gardens and parks. The value they provide in developed countries is evident. Botanists and urban planners can beautify African streets and make them greener by lining them with trees and other plants. Botanists can also set up private practices to advise households and institutions on the ideal plants to grow in their gardens and compounds.

Likewise, Africans have a greater need for psychologists than they realize. An estimated 100 million Africans have depression in what some have called a “silent epidemic.” Meanwhile, according to the Lancet, Africa has only 1.4 mental health workers per 100,000 people, while the global average is 9 per 100,000 people.

The large numbers of graduating psychology students should not feel compelled to find jobs in other fields. Governments can introduce policies that mandate hiring psychologists at all schools. Like their Western counterparts, young African children and older students can’t always turn to family members and friends in difficult moments. They need the emotional support of a trained professional at such times.

Even older adults in Africa appear to need the counseling services of psychologists. As a substitute for these services, they consult pastors and find solace in church services. The pastoring profession has proliferated across Africa as a result, but the consolation Africans receive from church is an inadequate substitute for the professional care trained mental health workers provide.

Archaeology doesn’t have to be seen as a useless course in much of Africa. Africans need archaeologists to preserve their rich cultural heritage and develop historical sites. Africans can reap huge tourism revenues by building world-renowned museums to house their treasured artifacts, including those repatriated from the museums of Western countries. And if coastal countries across Africa took oceanography and fisheries more seriously, Ghana would have discovered earlier than 2012 that it had coral reefs. Such reefs and aquariums could be huge tourist draws in these countries. Seismic oceanography could likewise lead to more discoveries of oil and gas in the waters off Africa.

Institutions like the World Bank and the International Labor Organization can introduce an index (similar to the defunct Doing Business ranking) to measure the extent to which countries develop and utilize the knowledge and skills of their youth. Such a ranking would compel African governments to concentrate on harnessing the varied skills, knowledge, and talents of young people.

Development partners, private foundations, and foreign companies (as part of their corporate social responsibility) can also help African nations create jobs in other professional fields by building public institutions such as libraries, art galleries, and music conservatories across the continent, and funding art workshops and music lessons. Libraries are scarce across Africa. Kenya, with a population of 55.3 million, has just 64 public libraries, while Nigeria, the continent’s most populous country with a population of 212.7 million, has an estimated 316 public libraries. By contrast, France with a population of 65.5 million has 16,500 public libraries.

With increased access to books, more Africans would develop interests in reading and writing, spawning higher numbers of writers and journalists. More Africans would be able to articulate themselves in writing, enabling them to document the continent’s history and contribute their perspectives to debates on public policy and foreign policy rather than letting the world write about Africa. More libraries would provide spaces for unemployed and self-employed youth to research and develop their ideas, work on independent projects, and hold meetings with others.

Nigeria, the continent’s most populous country with a population of 212.7 million, has an estimated 316 public libraries. By contrast, France with a population of 65.5 million has 16,500

In addition, students across Africa would perform better academically if they had dedicated spaces like libraries for studying; Africa’s youth employment debacle has been partly blamed on the continent’s low educational outcomes. Libraries could also go a long way toward curbing Africa’s astronomical population growth by providing teenage girls in rural areas (where there is a higher incidence of teenage pregnancies) both a refuge from the abusive men who prey on them and a more productive way of spending their time.

Similarly, Africa’s already significant share of the world’s renowned artists and musicians would multiply if young people were exposed early to art and musical instruments, and were given access to training facilities and quality instruction. Youth with training in art and music can also work with these skills on a part-time basis, as well as for supplementary income. Furthermore, the construction of libraries, art galleries, and music conservatories would provide work opportunities to architects, who are in short supply across Africa.

Young Africans lack access to grants to pursue professional ambitions such as language study abroad, internships abroad (as well as local ones), book-writing projects, and online classes. African governments and development partners must make grants available to people with varied interests, not just entrepreneurs. With these grants, African youth would gain the relevant skills and experiences to qualify for the jobs they seek. They would be able to pursue unconventional career paths and work independently. And they would have access to expert training online in areas as diverse as screenwriting, novel-writing, acting, cooking, and coding.

Development partners can also encourage their nationals to hire suitably qualified African youth in nonprofit and private organizations around the world. African youth lack opportunities to work abroad because their countries do not have development agencies operating abroad and relatively few African companies have subsidiaries outside their countries or the continent where their youth could travel to work. In addition, African countries have smaller diplomatic missions, and professional positions in these missions are usually restricted to foreign service officers, many of whom are older and more experienced.

Just a few African governments—including Egypt, Morocco, and South Africa—sponsor their youth to enter international organizations such as the United Nations as junior professional officers and volunteers. The weak passports of African countries are an additional impediment. Unemployed African youth aren’t able to travel abroad to network and search for opportunities the way a young French or American job seeker might.

If African governments and development partners implemented such varied solutions, they would succeed in harnessing the skills and knowledge of the vast majority of African youth. If young Africans could easily find jobs across diverse professional fields, fewer of them would choose to be nurses, and their countries wouldn’t have surplus unemployed nurses to export to developed countries. Parents would also be more accepting of their children pursuing less popular careers if their prospects of finding work in such fields were greater.

Adopting a holistic approach to the employment problem would enable African governments to better target entrepreneurship and skills training programs to those who would benefit most from them, especially youth from rural areas where the majority of agricultural and manufacturing activities take place. Targeting entrepreneurship and skills training there would also help to stem their migration to urban areas.

This approach would be more difficult than the current approach focused on entrepreneurship and skills training, but it stands a better chance of solving the employment problem.

African governments must do the difficult work of creating jobs for their youth, but donor countries and nongovernmental organizations can help them by thinking beyond the current development paradigm.

Audrey Donkor is a writer and international affairs analyst from Ghana. Twitter: @AudreyDonkor

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