Young, Qualified And Barely Scraping By: Inside Nigeria’s Economic Crisis

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With unemployment among the world’s worst and those under 35 hit hardest, young Nigerians see their prospects rapidly diminish 

Favour Obi graduated in 2016 with a first class degree in biomedical sciences and what felt like reasonable hopes for a career in medical research.

Before a recent shift waiting tables at a fast food restaurant in Lagos, the 27-year-old explained how gradually she let those hopes drift away. “I knew it would be hard to find a job but at the same time I was so determined, I was staying hopeful,” she said.

Her job for the past three and a half years pays 35,000 naira (£60) a month, just above Nigeria’s minimum wage and barely enough to live on. It was initially meant to be temporary.

“But it’s been years now and I’m still here. There are so many people I know in a similar position,” she said, describing friends around her age, who were well-qualified yet grappling with how to do more than just survive.

Obtaining a graduate degree has always been revered in her family, Obi said, yet her post-university life has been an uphill struggle. Like many of her generation she has been forced to learn trades and pursue other career paths. “We grow up being told that going to university will help you become successful,” she said. “Being qualified makes us proud, our parents are proud, but for many of us, it hasn’t changed our lives for the better because we’re lacking jobs.”

Nigeria’s vast, rapidly growing population of 200 million people has a median age of just 18. Many of its young people have seen their prospects quickly diminish in recent years.

Since 2015, Nigeria has endured one of its worst economic slumps in a generation. Two recessions since 2016 – driven by a combination of the government’s economic policies, a collapse in oil prices, and the Covid-19 pandemic – have inflicted prolonged misery.

The economic challenges are stark and affect people across the age spectrum, but the rise of youth unemployment has been among the most troubling factors.

The unemployment rate has quadrupled since 2015 to become one of the worst globally. At the end of last year, 23 million people – or 33% of working age people looking for work – were recorded as unemployed, according to the Nigerian Bureau of Statistics (NBS), and younger people were worst affected.

Almost half of working-age Nigerians under 35 are either unemployed or underemployed – working part-time when they would like to be full time – the NBS said in March. A shadow has been cast over the young, reinforcing the sense that greener pastures lie elsewhere.

“Many people now just want to leave,” Obi said. “So many people I know don’t see Nigeria as a place they can actually thrive.”

Throughout the morning, dozens of mainly young people stream in and out of a dim hallway in an old building in the Lagos Island district of Nigeria’s sprawling metropolis, meeting job agents who connect them to employers.

“The number of jobs are shrinking and the number of people looking is growing everyday,” said 46-year-old Julius Oshie, a job agent for the past five years, as he explained how the job market had dramatically changed.

“The other problem is that the type of jobs available are not what many young people see as beneficial to them. They are jobs that they take to survive, not to get on in life,” he said. “Cleaning jobs, bar jobs, ‘house helps’ [maids]. And it’s not just the poorer masses taking these jobs. It’s the aspirational classes, the more highly educated,” he said. “It’s been like this for a long time, it’s just you can say it’s getting worse.”

Oshie gestured to a stack of CVs at the end of his desk. “I have people with top degrees in very technical, impressive subjects – physics, statistics – and they come here and after years without work in their field, they’re going to low earning jobs, paying less than 30,000 naira per month,” he said.

In some cases, white collar jobs had less appeal, Oshie said, due to corporate companies cutting the wages offered as the economy has struggled. It was also common for employers to complain that roles went unfilled because of skills shortages.

Attaining a university degree is a dominant aspiration in Nigerian culture, which venerates academic achievement and excellence. Many people see higher education as a route out of poverty, yet in practice university qualifications are not working for many young people, said Tokunbo Afikuyomi, the editor of Stears Business, an economic analysis company based in Lagos.

“We have a situation where the more middle class and educated class are struggling to find work. The unemployment rate of those who left secondary school is lower than the unemployment rate of those who left university,” he said.

Many Nigerians blame president Muhammadu Buhari’s government for exacerbating the oil and Covid crises by closing land borders for extended periods, enacting import bans and failing to deal with rising insecurity.

In response to rising unemployment, the Buhari government has adopted a number of jobs programmes, including some targeted at young people and graduates that provide short-term roles, placements and training. The government says many of the programmes have helped to boost the employment prospects of hundreds of thousands of young people.

It is expected, for instance, that mass job programmes such as the Special Public Works scheme – the largest such programme in the country’s history – will provide 750,000 three-month jobs to unemployed graduates this year.

But Afikuyomi said the benefits the scheme were limited. “With jobs, they can’t be created by force,” he said. “If you’re not building enough houses, or infrastructure you get a situation where you create a jobs programme where people only have jobs for a fixed period, then they’re unemployed again.”

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