Sunday, November 3, 2013

Why youth unemployment endures


Experts now believe that with nearly 75 million unemployed young people the next global financial crisis is in the making. To avert economic catastrophe, the world needs to create 600 million jobs over the next decade.

In Kenya, nearly 75 percent of the unemployed are aged between 15 and 24 years. 60 to 90 percent of young workers in developing countries are employed within the informal sector. The disillusionment and alienation of being excluded from productive employment or realizing one’s potential can have enduring social and psychological consequences for the youth.

Why has unemployment among young people reached a crisis proportion? In my view five factors are implicated.

The first factor is rapid population growth. At the current population of 1.03 billion, Africa’s population doubled in just 27 years. Here at home Kenya’s population has nearly quadrupled in just 50 years. 63 percent of the population of the East African Community region is under 24 years old. This high proportion of young people is a veritable cauldron for furious population growth far into the foreseeable feature. African countries are adding more young people than can be supported by national planning capacity or the pace and character of economic growth.

The second factor is low quality education. Even as more young people are graduating from high school and college, they lack the skills demanded by the 21st century workplace. Our education system is antiquated, predominantly influenced by left-brain education paradigms of the industrial revolution, which privilege sequential, logical and analytical worldviews. The right-brain nonlinear, intuitive and holistic view of the universe is scorned upon as nebulous and insubstantial.

I am of the Samuel Taylor Coleridge tribe and believe that a great mind must be androgynous or “non-hemispheric”. In his book, “A whole new mind: Moving from the information age to the conceptual age”, Daniel H. Pink argues that we are moving from an economy and society built on the logical, linear, computer-like capabilities of the information age to an economy and society built on big picture needs requiring meaning makers and pattern recognizers.

Our school system; from kindergarten to university accomplish far less for our children than it should. A majority of children leave primary school without attaining the basic competencies in literacy and numeracy. Many students graduate from college today without being able to write or reason well enough to satisfy potential employers. Our education is predicated on onerous and useless content, driven by unthinking memorization and regurgitation. This kind of education does not produce the agile adaptive thinkers demanded by the conceptual age we live in.

Nobody understands the weaknesses of Kenya’s public education better than the uber wealthy civil servants and political class. They send their children to expensive prep schools here at home and then to top colleges abroad. They understand that Kenya’s antiquated education does not prepare the students for their first jobs or to become successful entrepreneurs.

The third factor is the structural flaws in Africa’s economic growth. While Africa’s economic growth in the last decade is unprecedented, it tends to trickle upward rather than downward. Services are the fastest growing sector across most African countries. This includes telecommunications, warehousing, transport, banking, security and insurance.

Growth in these areas have the lowest multiplier effect, hence has the least potential to create jobs for the majority unskilled graduates from high school and college. Robust growth in agriculture and industry are likely to have the largest potential to generate high quality economic growth, with the largest multiplier effects and huge employment opportunities. But both of these sectors are in decline, stifled neglect and globalization.

The fourth factor is the discouraged youth. In many African countries, the job market, both private and public is under the tyranny of ethnic cartels. Many young people are irredeemably cynical about recruitment processes. A growing number of young people have stopped looking for work. They have anecdotal experiences that are hard to discount. 

The fifth factor is lack of coherent national policy. Kenya offers good examples. We have implemented incoherent programs like Kazi Kwa Vijana in a futile attempt to address youth issues. In an uncertain world, the youth need skills in critical thinking and complex reasoning. This must be buttressed by inclusive economic growth policies. Ad hoc programs like the recently launched UWEZO will fail because it does not address fundamental structural drivers of youth unemployment. 

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