Harnessing the Employability of South Africa’s Youth

by Rogers Dhliwayo, Economics Adviser for UNDP South Africa Country Office

September 13, 2023

Youth unemployment in South Africa

Ron Lach, Pexels

South Africa’s youth potential is vast and holds great promise for the country's future. The youth in South Africa, typically defined as individuals between the ages of 15 and 35, make up a significant portion of the population, with a diverse range of talents, skills, and aspirations. However, it's essential to acknowledge that the country also faces several challenges that can hinder the realization of this potential. 

I recently had the privilege of attending and presenting key findings of the South Africa National Human Development Report 2022 (SANHDR): Harnessing the Employability of South Africa’s Youth during the report launch event that was officiated by the Deputy President of the Republic of South Africa, H. E. Mr Shipokosa Paulus Mashatile. 

Data released by Statistics South Africa in May 2023 shows that the total number of unemployed youth aged 15-34 years stands at 4.9 million, as a result of a 1.1% increase from the last quarter of 2022, to 46.5% for the first quarter of the year. In comparison, the country’s overall official unemployment rate stands at 32.9%. Delving deeper into the data, this shows that “youth aged 15-24 years and 25-34 years recorded the highest unemployment rates of 62.1% and 40.7% respectively”. Furthermore, approximately 3.7 million (36.1%) out of 10.2 million young people aged 15-24 years were not in employment, education, or training.

Looking at youth employment through the human development lens, the SANHDR emphasizes that youth employment is crucial in economic terms and for human development. Meaningful employment not only offers financial support but also fosters human dignity, empowering individuals to develop their agency and skills, and equipping them with the means to shape their lives and contribute positively to their communities. The human development approach recognizes that solving problems related to youth unemployment goes beyond reducing the unemployment rate and increasing job creation. The focus should also be on matching job opportunities with career aspirations and removing all barriers to navigating the transition between education and employment. All these elements are also fundamental to reaping the demographic dividend and optimizing the roles of youth in driving South Africa’s development future.

High-quality jobs are integral to fostering inclusive growth and long-term human capital accumulation. They help ensure physical and psychological health and are vital for young people to live productive and meaningful lives well into their older years. 

In contrast, young people who take longer to find decent employment are likely to accumulate fewer skills than those who begin on the job learning at an earlier age. The corresponding reduction in human capital can result in lower earnings throughout a working life. Long-term unemployment or underemployment—can further erode skills and attachment to the workforce, leading to skills depreciation, lower earnings and sometimes exit from the workforce altogether.

Long-term unemployment can deter a successful transition from youth to adulthood and affect multiple human development dimensions. For example, it can lead to stress, anxiety, depression and general illness, and is associated with reduced life expectancy. Persistent low incomes are also associated with poorer mental health and well-being, especially when generating a sense of scarcity or insufficiency compared with peers in a community.[1] People at the lower end of the income spectrum suffer from mental distress 1.5 to 3 times as often as people at the higher end and are more likely to experience violent crime and traumatic events.[2]

The report highlights five strategic pathways that can harness the employability of South Africa’s youth and unleash the transformative power of youth for inclusive growth and structural transformation of South Africa: 
  • Urgently prioritize public sector investments in education and skills development and scale up effective initiatives that harness youth participation in the economy: Education and skills development require an overhaul, including through transforming curricula to focus on industry needs, future growth pathways and ‘future skills’; innovative pedagogy; and quality teachers, equipment and learning resources. This transformation is only possible if financial investments in education and skills can be safeguarded and gradually increased.
  • Develop one-stop job services consolidating existing tools and services: South Africa needs to invest in employment services programmes such as job search assistance and access to labour market information, job counselling and placement services, and financial assistance programmes. There is a striking mismatch in channels used by young people seeking employment compared to those used by employers in recruitment. Most young people still heavily rely on family and personal networks in searching for a job, underscoring inequalities in entering the labour market.[3] Well-run employment services would help them to more quickly find better quality jobs aligned with their aspirations and skills. Government-run employment services are important channels in increasing labour market participation, supporting successful job and career transitions, and enabling greater transparency in the job market.

  • Expand youth entrepreneurship in technology-based and green industries: Harnessing entrepreneurship in the green and digital economy can be achieved through three action areas namely, raising awareness and improving talent development in the field of green and technology business culture and models, including for start-ups and social entrepreneurship among youth, creating an environment for investments in start-ups and green enterprises by facilitating investment opportunities through crowdfunding, impact investment funds and venture capital, and provision of business development services and other financial and technical support schemes through start-up challenges, social innovation challenges and incubation facilities.

  • Build on shifting gender norms to achieve greater women’s economic empowerment: Gender norms primarily affect women’s economic empowerment by influencing perceptions about the appropriate roles that men and women should play in society, at home and in the economic sphere.[4] Available evidence shows that prevailing gender norms are changing and that there are more positive attitudes among both women and men towards women taking up work and women’s mobility. Supporting women’s groups, youth groups and social media could promote positive role models, accompanied by an outreach campaign to showcase women’s economic participation. The campaign should build awareness of sharing unpaid care work as integral to women’s greater choices for employment or entrepreneurship.

  • Revitalize the National Youth Service to bridge the school-to-work gap: A National Youth Service Scheme offers ambitious youth on-the-job training and valuable work experience, strengthening their skills. Countries with National Youth Service Schemes credit them for helping young people adapt to the working world and jumpstart their careers with a goal-driven mindset. National Youth Service Schemes not only refine technical skills but also guide young individuals in professionalizing themselves and expanding their knowledge.

Realizing South Africa's youth potential requires a concerted effort from government, civil society, and the private sector. Policies and programmes aimed at addressing youth unemployment, improving education and skills development, and promoting entrepreneurship can help unlock the country's youth potential and create a brighter future for South Africa. 


[1]  UNDP 2022. 2021/2022 Human Development Report: Uncertain Times, Unsettled Lives: Shaping our Future in a

Transforming World. New York. https://hdr.undp.org/system/ files/documents/global-report-document/hdr2021-22pdf_1.


[2] ibid. 

[3] Mazza, J. 2017. Labor Intermediation Services in Developing Economies. London: Palgrave Macmillan Books.MCT (Ministry of Technology and Communications). 2021. 2021 Technology and Communications Sector Statistics Book. Vientiane. https://mtc.gov.la/index. php?r=site%2Fdetail&id=908

[4] Peters, H. E., S. Adelstein and R. Abare. 2019. Gender Norms and Women’s Economic Empowerment in Low-Income Countries: What We Learned by Reviewing the Evidence. Urban Institute. https://www.urban.org/urban-wire/gender-norms-and-womens-economic-empowerment-lowincome-countries-what-we-learned-reviewing-evidenceUNDESA (United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs). 2020. Exploring Youth Entrepreneurship.https://sdgs.un.org/publications/exploring-youthentrepreneurship-24572

High-quality jobs are integral to fostering inclusive growth and long-term human capital accumulation. They help ensure physical and psychological health and are vital for young people to live productive and meaningful lives well into their older years.