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Youth and labour markets in Africa:
A critical review of literature


October 2007

SARPN acknowledges the AFD website as the source of this report:
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Young people in Africa are confronted with many difficulties when it comes to their integration in the labour markets and their research for decent and productive jobs. Youth unemployment, which is substantially higher than global adult unemployment, has been growing in the last decade (ILO, 2006). The situation is likely to keep deteriorating as the total number of youth is expected to keep increasing rapidly in the next ten years1. By defining a specific target through the Millenium Development Goal concerning youth employment (Target 16) the international community has recognised the seriousness of the situation. However, in spite of the dramatic economic, social and political consequences (on poverty, social cohesion, migrations, etc.) of youth employment problems, the literature on African labour markets provides only very few studies focusing on this population. Following international standards, we define “youth” as people aged 15 to 24. This definition excludes children and therefore child labour issues.

This survey of literature focuses mainly on economic research done on Sub-Saharan Africa2, although some references are reviewed for North Africa. It stresses that an assessment of youth employment problems in African countries requires a (still missing) clear diagnosis based on hard data and analytical research on determinants of labour market participation and unemployment. Research on the links between formal education and on-the-job training and their economic returns are especially crucial in understanding inadequacy between labour supply and demand.

As shown by this research review, basic labour market indicators are lacking or are at best incomplete due to data availability and methodological problems. Worst, as illustrated below, different sources lead to opposite diagnoses concerning youth unemployment and its trends. In order to contribute to this badly needed diagnosis, we present some new evidence based on the 1-2-3 Surveys recently conducted conducted in 10 African countries, which provides a consistent and comparable picture of the situation of youth employment in urban labour markets in these countries.

The literature survey also underlines the diversity of the situation of youth employment on the continent (Southern Africa vs. other African countries; Anglophone vs. Francophone countries, etc.). It also shows the “urban bias” in economic research on this subject, partly due to the lack of data on rural areas.

Section two begins by pointing out the main difficulties of monitoring youth employment given lack of data as well as methodology discrepancies among different available sources. Taking these difficulties into account, this section is devoted to putting forward the main stylized facts concerning youth employment in Africa, using both international statistics and existing survey data.

Section three addresses the main causes of poor youth employment performance by reviewing research done on labour supply characteristics, in order to grasp changes in labour force composition, and the extent of upgrades on labour force education. The issue of returns to education and training is discussed in detail. Research on the relative disadvantage of youth in the labour market in terms of access to social capital, land and capital is also reviewed.

Section four summarizes the main findings concerning the role of labour demand in relation to institutions. We review the research on the impact of labour standards and regulations. While being an opportunity for creating higher quality jobs, they are often considered to be, together with the lack of economic growth and investment, one of the main obstacles in creating more jobs in African countries.

A review of policies and practices is carried out in the fifth section. African countries have been implementing several initiatives concerning employment for the last few years, some of them addressing the particular issue of youth employment. What can be said about the impact of these policies on improving labour market and income prospects for the youth? What are the lessons drawn from their successes or failures? Sections four and five are more concise as the youth dimension is missing in most of the empirical literature relating to labour market institutions, growth and employment, and employment policies.
Section six concludes.

  1. In 2005, 62 percent of the population was below age of 25 and the total number of the youth (aged 15-24) is forecast to grow by an additional 22 million between 2005 and 2015 (ILO, 2006:1). By 2010, the share of youth in the population in Sub-Saharan Africa will reach about 28 percent, making Africa the “youngest” region in the world (World Bank, 2006b: 2).
  2. Some sociological and political science studies are also reviewed.

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