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Challenges to youth and work in the Global South - the pandemic is only part of the picture

Dr. Garima Sahai

The future of work is changing. In the Global North, young people may no longer be able to hold a single, stable job over the long term, unlike generations that came before them. The Global South is experiencing a ‘youth bulge’ (where children and young adults form a large share of the population), and securing any job poses a challenge for young people. About 90 per cent of the nearly two billion young people in the world today are in the Global South.

Being unemployed does not only mean an absence of income. A job is a source of livelihood, but it also provides an identity, a sense of purpose, social contact, and aids psychological well-being. If young people could access decent work, not only could they lead lives with a sense of fulfilment, but societies could reap significant demographic dividends. On the other hand, failure to address the challenge of decent work for young people could lead to a “demographic crisis”, with widespread unmet needs of young people dampening economic growth and stirring up frustration and disaffection, creating conditions ripe for social unrest.

The Sustainable Development Goals explicitly recognise the importance of providing decent work, most explicitly in the form of SDG 8 which aims for “full and productive employment and decent work for all” by 2030. Cambridge Global Challenges organised a two-day conference, 'Halfway to the Sustainable Development Goals: Lessons from the South', from 21-22 June 2022 at the University of Cambridge. In a half-day session, Young people and work for achieving the SDGs, the conference discussed the challenge of young people and work at this important juncture. 

The session speakers reflected on the macro trends and the micro evidence from across the Global South. Professor Tassew Woldehanna of Addis Ababa University presented on “Youth employment, shocks and challenges of meeting SDGs: the Ethiopian experience”. He emphasised that COVID-19 has disrupted the labour market globally, including in Ethiopia, where young people have suffered the worst effects. Youth employment dropped by 8.7 per cent globally, compared to 3.7 per cent for older adults, with young women experiencing the greatest losses amongst the youth. Although Ethiopia has in place a multi-sectoral, 10-year, development plan which aimed to promote GDP growth by 10 per cent per annum, the economy grew by less than 7 per cent.

The presentation emphasised that COVID-19 was a contributing factor and not the main cause of the slow growth of the economy and employment. Once pandemic-related restrictions were lifted, the economy recovered and by 2021 employment rates began to return to pre-pandemic levels making it easy to conclude that it was pandemic-related restrictions that were at the heart of low economic and employment growth rates. But they fell again by the end of 2021, despite there being no pandemic-related restrictions. This period instead coincided with conflict, drought, and inflation rates of more than 30 per cent. It is these persistent pre-pandemic factors, not COVID-19, which are key to Ethiopia’s economic and labour market outcomes.

Professor Bhaskar Vira (University of Cambridge) addressed the “Future of work in a COVID-impacted world”. Corroborating the Ethiopian case, he emphasised that the youth employment crisis was a challenge well before the COVID-19 pandemic. Young women, in particular, have been persistently disadvantaged in the labour market. Globally, young women formed two-thirds of the NEET (Not in education, employment or training) even before the pandemic hit. In India, for example, young women’s labour force participation was already low and had been declining for almost a decade before the onset of the pandemic in 2020. During COVID-19, the disadvantage faced by young women manifested as greater job loss, greater loss in earnings, and those who lost jobs experienced lower recovery than all other groups - older men, older women, and young men.

Building on this wider context, the next two speakers delved into country case studies for Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Analysing the disadvantaged position of young women in the labour market, I, Dr. Garima Sahai (University of Cambridge) presented “Young women’s entry into “men’s” work: Lessons from a case study of young women taxi drivers in India”. The presentation asked: what are the factors that structure young women’s entry into non-traditional job training for young women in India?

Paradoxically, India has witnessed low and declining female labour force participation rates despite economic growth. A key reason for this is occupational gender segregation - that high growth sectors such as logistics are considered ‘male’ and non-traditional for women in India. Based on interviews with young women training in non-traditionally female and traditionally female occupations, the presentation emphasised that factors embedded in young women’s daily lives, such as access to job-related information, mobility, and parental support, determine their occupational outcomes. Impactful policy needs to recognise these everyday factors.

Iyeyinka Omigbodun (University of Cambridge), presented her work on “Providing decent employment for youth: Lessons from a social network study of self-employed youth in Ghana and Nigeria”. Based on a mixed-methods study, the presentation emphasised the criticality of family support for the self-employed in Ghana and Nigeria, where youth unemployment rates are high and institutional support can be weak. Family ties are a critical source of support - financial, technical, emotional and practical.

The key point is that whilst COVID-19 disrupted the labour markets across countries and had severe consequences, the youth employment crisis has been a persistent challenge. COVID-19 intensified already existing inequalities - between younger and older workers, and between men and women. In order to develop a useful course forward we must reflect on the root causes of the youth employment challenge, beyond the simple answer of the pandemic.


Dr. Garima Sahai is a Research Associate, Young People and Work in the Global South, Department of Geography, University of Cambridge, and bye-fellow, Murray Edwards College, University of Cambridge. 

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