Friday, July 1 2022


Job opportunities, or the lack thereof, have long been a central concern of African governments, young people and their families. Youth employment1 is also currently the subject of considerable interest in policy, research and practice (e.g., CTA et al., 2014; Filmer & Fox, 2014; IDRC, 2015; Losch, 2016; The World Bank , 2009, 2018; Yeboah, 2018). The “youth employment” crisis now occupies a central place in most discussions of labor markets and public policies in sub-Saharan Africa.2 The growing momentum behind the idea of ​​’investing in youth’ has led to a proliferation of youth-specific and youth-targeted interventions.

However, defining the problem as a ‘youth employment’ crisis means that many interventions are relatively small and narrowly targeted, especially when international development partners are involved. Many have limited results and fail to address the structural problems that hamper the creation of quality jobs. The ‘it’s all about young people’ framing ignores the fact that young people are in fact caught in a larger ‘job shortage’ crisis in Africa that reflects fundamental structural constraints within African economies.

We are not the first to raise these concerns and call for structural changes to strengthen labor market demand (Betcherman & Khan, 2018; Filmer & Fox, 2014; Flynn et al., 2017). It is also true that apart from the discussion on youth employment, much has been written about the need to increase employment opportunities for all Africans (Monga et al., 2019).

The contribution of this article is to bring together evidence from a wide range of sources; indicate where the evidence supports current political orthodoxy and where it does not; and chart an alternative political discourse and political landscape. There is no doubt that too many young people struggle to find work that provides them with a satisfactory livelihood. However, we argue that this is only one aspect of the larger jobs crisis. In other words, the problem is with the economy and “missing jobs” for everyone, not just young people.

In this article, we critically question the dominant narrative of youth employment in sub-Saharan Africa, examining five dimensions: demographics, violence and civil unrest, training and skills, entrepreneurship in the economy urban services and the rural economy. This dominant narrative can be summed up as follows: there are (too) many young people in sub-Saharan Africa; when they are “inactive” they are easily drawn into crime and violence; they cannot get the available jobs because they lack technical and soft skills and therefore need training; they are intrinsically innovative, and therefore their entrepreneurial potential must be awakened; and they are opposed to agriculture. This narrative suggests that the crisis is very ‘youth-specific’ (Irwin et al., 2018): youth are both the problem and the solution, and therefore youth-specific or youth-targeted interventions should be prioritized.

We offer a counter-narrative that situates the fundamental problem not with young Africans, but with the structure of African economies, which offer far too few decent work opportunities for people of all ages. Thus, the so-called youth employment problem cannot be solved independently of the great economic challenges countries face today. Indeed, the emphasis on interventions targeting young people actually distracts decision-makers and stakeholders from framing the political agenda for structural change. Only a broader set of policy options that prioritize solving broader structural problems has the potential to produce much greater results, for people of all ages.

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