The Social and Economic Costs of Unemployment

One depressing reality in virtually every Nigerian family is the sight of adults in their late 20s and 30s who left school years ago, but have been unable to secure gainful employment. Thus, at an age when they are supposed to be productive and integral parts of our economy, building the fabrics of our social life by settling down to raise families, and supporting their parents in their old age materially and emotionally, millions of them are still at home – with parents, relatives or simply roughing it out with more fortunate friends who have managed to find something to do.

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To put the situation in context, Colonel (later General) Yakubu Gowon became Head of State of Nigeria at the age of 32. Not many people realize that despite his impact and legacy, General Murtala Mohammed was assassinated at the age of 38. Late Mathew Mbu was an ambassador at the age of 26. Obasanjo handed power to civilians in 1979 at the age of 42. Late Anthony Enahoro then member of Federal Parliament tabled the motion for Nigeria’s independence at the age of 30. Most of the military officers who commanded battalions during the civil war were in their 20s and 30s….the examples are endless.

While recognizing the special circumstances under which these patriots operated, the fact is that they were in charge of government, making and implementing public policy decisions affecting the lives of millions while in their 20s and 30s. That many Nigerians still yearn for the good old days means that the earlier generations were largely successful and managed to keep Nigeria united despite civil unrest, the civil war, military coups and through very difficult periods in our history.

By contrast, many young men and women in Nigeria today of the same age are still waiting to graduate, have graduated but cannot find jobs, have found jobs but lost them to government economic mismanagement, have never left home or are squatting somewhere with no end in sight. Many of the few who have found jobs cannot afford accommodation. It is a sad truth too, that many Nigerians in their 20s and 30s have never experienced the joy and privacy associated with having a room to themselves, much less a tiny apartment. How can we get the best of them? How can we actualize the true potential of a 30 year old that still has to share rooms with siblings and other relatives? Personally, I have two holders of masters' degrees at home, waiting for their very first job. What can we as parents do?

This gross waste of our human resources potential – which should be one of our greatest assets - has grave social and economic consequences that the government glosses over or simply chooses to ignore. But this is one problem it cannot disregard. To continue to waste the lives of our young people this way is not only criminal, but ignores the impact on the psyche and quality of leaders of the future: Why should our young men not be angry, when several years after graduation and already in their 30s, they still have to ask their parents for money to pay for meat pie or a haircut? Why should our young women not be irritated when despite graduating with good grades, they remain unemployed or unmarried simply because the basic ingredients for settling down – a job and a home are not only unobtainable, but far from reach?

It was with shock that I read the reported revelation from the Dangote Group, that in response to the company’s adverts for executive drivers, about seven Ph.D holders and thousands of master’s degree holders were among the 13,000 that applied for the available 100 openings. In other words, 1,300 people were jostling for every single position.

Is President Jonathan aware of the social and economic costs of wasting the potentials of 20 million youths? Does he have a plan to tackle unemployment? What happened to the promises of YouWin and all the 'transformation' hype he made? Is it sensible to fritter N2.4 trillion on his friends and cronies in government when Nigeria has about 90 million people who are willing and able to work, but about 70 million of them cannot find productive, full-time and paying jobs or what to ‘manage’?

It is a shocking fact that only about 20 million Nigerians have sustainable and regular jobs, out of a population of about 162 million. This simple statistic causes the country a loss of about N2 trillion annually from the absence of commercial activities that ordinarily should have taken place but did not. The social cost is unquantifiable but has short and long term effects that sociologists have to study. What cannot be denied is that the situation is doing severe harm to the creativity and productivity of millions of Nigerians between the ages of 21 and 40 years - the future leaders of our country, and nearly half of its population.

It is sad that when the performance of the Jonathan administration is mentioned, rather than objective analyses of the situation devoid of the usual connotations, a few Nigerian youths, who perhaps by virtue of their proximity to power benefit from the mindless looting of the nation’s treasury, distort the discussion and sing baseless commendations. But when all the praises have been sung, the hard facts still stare back at us: millions of our unemployed daughters, sons, brothers and sisters – including those entering the workforce for the first time and others who have lost their jobs due to the incompetent management of our economy will scan the pages of newspapers and websites for job advertisements, but like the situation at Dangote reflects, thousands of youths will chase every available vacancy. And as we know, it is those connected rather than those best qualified, that will end up filling most vacancies when they are available.

Sadness turns to fear when one ruminates on the fact that even as the ranks of jobless Nigerians grow, at least three million more unemployed people will join them next year. At current rates, even if government policies, enabling environment and direct efforts manage to create one million new jobs a year (an impossibility under Jonathan), it would take 20 years to close today’s existing job gap. Except that by that time, at least 60 million more Nigerians would have joined the workforce.

It is almost cruel to talk of underemployment when so many millions are unemployed, yet we cannot pretend that underemployment is not a serious concern in our economy. This has negative consequences on our national productivity output. The twin factors of unemployment and underemployment cause substantial economic losses because we are unable to produce goods and services for the lost millions of wage earners, but because unemployed people do not earn money, that gap remains unfilled. In most places in the world, job growth leads to economic growth and vice versa, but not in Nigeria. How can government claim that the economy is truly growing when it is not creating jobs? If the growth figures released by government are to be believed, Nigeria should be creating about three million jobs annually which should in turn lead to a steady decline in unemployment and poverty.

At the moment, many sectors capable of creating jobs for Nigerians remain untapped. Tourism alone can create millions of jobs, but which tourist will visit a country that is as unsafe as Nigeria? Agriculture – potentially the largest employer of labour- has been left largely at subsistence level, with issues like infrastructure deficits, high interest rates affecting the sector's value chain. Whilst commending the initiative to establish the Agricultural Sector Intervention Fund, the N200 billion was placed in interest yielding bank accounts for a long while, with many of them reluctant to lend, and to the real farmers. Yet, this is a sector that can earn more foreign exchange for Nigeria than oil and save us the trillions we spend on food imports.

Similarly, education – where millions of vacancies in teaching, lecturing and support services also exist or can be created is still chronically underfunded. Worse is the fact that the informal sector – which is three to four times the size of the formal economy, has been left to its own devices because formalization channels are difficult to reach – so an important source of economic development, employment generation and tax revenues remains untapped.

Unemployment is at the heart of Nigeria’s poverty and insecurity. Unfortunately, the government of President Jonathan has consistently failed to devise policies to stimulate economic growth and create jobs when he should be taking advantage of inadequate amenities like clean water, education, and health care to invest in the required infrastructure and human capital development to create and retain millions of jobs in every part of the country and all sectors of the economy.

Considering the huge social and economic costs of unemployment, a focused government should be raising capital expenditures substantially – by building more schools, roads, bridges, water systems, electricity stations and other projects that create jobs. That would be the best way to apologize to, and salvage the futures of the millions of unemployed people in the country and engage them constructively in the Nigerian project.

Regrettably, this administration does not seem to understand these concepts, and is therefore unable to create even a mere 50,000 jobs every year when it should be creating at least three million jobs annually, while parents like me must shoulder the burdens of looking after our parents, extended families and children for years to come.