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Does South Africa have the world’s ‘worst levels’ of youth unemployment?

This article is more than 3 years old

UPDATE: Statistics South Africa released its latest employment statistics on 12 November 2020. The unemployment rate for people aged 15 to 34 increased to 43.2% in the third quarter of the year. This is according to the narrow definition of unemployment. The unemployment rate was 56.3% according to the expanded definition.

A recent opinion piece on the news website Independent Online claims that in South Africa “youth unemployment is at the worst levels of anywhere in the world”. 

As the country looks to repair the economic damage caused by Covid-19 and the national lockdown, concerns about unemployment have risen. 

What share of the country’s youth is currently unemployed? And how does this compare to the rest of the world? We looked at the latest figures. 

Different definitions of ‘youth’

There is no standard global definition of “youth”. This can complicate comparisons of youth unemployment across countries. 

For example, South Africa’s National Youth Commission Act defines the youth as people aged from 14 to 35. But Statistics South Africa’s Quarterly Labour Force Surveys do not collect data on 14 year olds. 

And international organisations, such as the UN, generally consider the youth to include people aged from 15 to 24

2.5 million youth unemployed in Q2 2020

In April to June 2020, 2.5 million young people aged 15 to 34 were unemployed in South Africa, according to Statistics South Africa. The age group’s unemployment rate was 34.1%. 

This is according to the narrow definition of unemployment, which only counts people who took active steps to look for work or start some form of self-employment in the four weeks before they were interviewed. 

When the expanded definition is considered, the unemployment rate for people aged 15 to 34 rises to 55.2%. This definition includes unemployed people who have given up looking for work. 

How do these figures compare to other countries? 

South Africa ranks high

The International Labour Organization (ILO), a United Nations agency, calculates annual unemployment statistics for 189 countries, territories and areas of the world. Their estimates provide data on youth aged from 15 to 24. 

Data for 2020 shows South Africa has the highest unemployment rate for this age group. Neighbouring Namibia, eSwatini and Botswana ranked in third, seventh and ninth place. 

Comparisons not always straightforward

While South Africa tops the ILO’s world ranking for youth unemployment, comparisons across countries should be made with caution. 

“The unemployment rate depends on the definition of unemployment, which in turn depends on how people are looking for work,” Dr Neva Makgetla, senior economist at the Trade and Industrial Policy Strategies research institute in Pretoria, told Africa Check. 

According to the ILO, countries use different kinds of surveys, survey questions and sampling techniques. All of these variations can produce different results. 

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