Last month, the Pew Research Centre published a report suggesting that growth in the size of the global middle class may not be as promising as it was once thought. In fact, the global middle class, the report argues, may be smaller and even poorer than previously estimated, and Africa is among the regions in which middle class performance has grown particularly limp. The report uses data collected between 2001 and 2011, and defines middle-income as a daily income of between $10.01 and $20. It is one of the only reports to embark on a survey of its kind and to do so using 2011 prices. Readers can, therefore, make more accurate comparisons by way of the cost of living in the numerous countries covered, but beyond the technicalities of data, there is little good news for readers in Africa, in particular, an enlarged group of African aspiring middle-income earners: the youth.
In Nigeria, only one percent of the population would qualify as middle-income earners. One is a member of the youth, between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five. Around fifty percent of Nigeria's 170 million population is accounted for by its youth population. Today, this is a group of people more and more likely to be literate, on-line, new or incoming entrants into the labour market. They are “mobile people” and, therefore, members of society with a particularly high propensity to migrate, be it from parental homes or out of the country altogether. These are people, for whom independence is a collectively shared, immediate aspiration but people nonetheless, for whom, based on recent demographic trends, can only expect a delay in achieving that independence. And where adulthood is defined as the achievement of both economic and financial independence, a delay in officially attaining adulthood as well.
The transition from youth to adulthood typically involves negotiating expectations. Young school-leavers, upon entering society, expect to find employment, their own place to live, someone to marry and the opportunity to raise a family eventually. The fundamental needs of young people in transition revolve around income earning and capital accumulation. Therefore, any country with hopes of effectively absorbing its youth population must be able to credibly guarantee that these expectations will be met.
However, according to the National Bureau of Statistics’ most recent Unemployment and Underemployent Report, presently, at over sixty percent, majority of the unemployed are between the ages of fifteen and thirty-four. Considering that over nineteen million people are unemployed (or underemployed), this means over eleven million young people are without but actively seeking proper employment. Furthermore, recent revisions by the National Bureau of Statistics reveal that for those who are even employed, there is the more onerous issue of underemployment, which could mean that a growing number of workers are underpaid, over qualified or perhaps even redundant. The foregoing, in addition to events such as the violent stampedes during the government’s mass recruitment exercise last year, only force young people to constantly revise and, revise negatively, their expectations about future income. For the highly skilled, this may lead to migration. The market for skills and human capital is global and the World Bank puts (data from 2000) the emigration rate of tertiary-skilled Nigerians at over ten percent. More recently, Nigeria's health sector has been highlighted as one of Africa's main-exporters of health staff. For the bulk of young people who by or not by choice remain in the country, however, the result is prolonged dependence and something similar to what physicists describe as "hysteresis", in this case, a lagging or blunting of skills.
The problem is, indeed, to some extent a dearth of labour demand rather, of job supply. But where the government often sees as one of its functions the provision of jobs, it would perhaps be more reasonable to focus, instead, on providing conditions that will enable labour markets to function efficiently. In the area of youth absorption, Nigeria clearly suffers a crisis of institutions. The National Youth Service Corps, which acts as the sole coordinating element, setting the rules and norms that govern how, primarily, young people enter the formal labour market, suffers from inertia and obsolescence. Now, more than ever, NYSC needs reformation. It would be too costly to discard, but its role needs to be reconfigured to be more congruous with the times. This may, unfortunately, mean less emphasis on civil service – though not entire neglect of the public sector. Presently, NYSC distorts the transition from youth to adulthood in its understandable but inefficient bias towards the public sector. In the past, its favouritism towards public sector employment not only denied the private sector access to more suitable labour but also denied those with real desires and capacities to work in the public sector, easy access to such employment.
The world is currently undergoing a shift in demographic patterns, with an increasing proportion of the world’s young people being concentrated in developing countries. For the developing countries, there is the possibility of a future human capital advantage over more developed countries, what is called a surplus of “economic dividend”, but there is also the threat of overcapacity, of developing countries cracking under the weight of their very own populations. Nigeria, which is projected to have the third largest population in the world by 2050, is one of such countries and, indeed, far greater than the possibility of dividend are the threats the country’s present lack of demographic coordination, if left unchecked, pose to its present cohort of young people.