Youth Unemployment: The Case of Kenya

Youth Unemployment: A Global Phenomenon

Today more than 71 million youth across the globe woke up unemployed. A 2018 International Labour Organisation (ILO) report indicates that the global youth unemployment rate stands at 13 percent. This is three times higher than the figure for adults, which is 4.3 percent. Youth unemployment is a global phenomenon, hence not unique to Kenya only. However, while overall unemployment has stabilised in most developed countries, unstable unemployment is expected to increase in most developing countries such as Kenya, according to ILO. Janoski et al (2014) define unemployment as the number of people who are willing and ready to work but cannot find the job. Youth unemployment is generally the unemployment of people between the ages 18–35 years. Unemployment is one of the important areas of interest for social scientists as it is a key social, economic and political problem in the contemporary world.

Youth Unemployment Situation in Kenya

While the UN considers youth to be anyone aged 15-24 years, the Kenya National Constitution of 2010 defines youth as “all individuals in the republic who have attained the age of 18 years but have not attained the age of 35.” In Kenya, unemployment remains a major problem that affects mostly the youth, even as they comprise more than 70 percent of the unemployed. A recent survey by Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) indicates that nine in every 10 unemployed Kenyans are aged 35 years and below.

At 22.2 percent, Kenya’s youth unemployment rate is highest in the East Africa region. By the end of 2017, youth unemployment in Tanzania stood at 5.2 percent, 4.0 percent in Uganda, 3.3 percent in Rwanda and 3.1 in Burundi. Notably, the youth unemployment rate in Kenya is higher than the global youth unemployment rate of 13 percent. According to the World Bank estimates, approximately 800 000 young Kenyans enter the labour market every year but of these, only about 50 000 manage to secure a job. The youth unemployment in Kenya is on the increase and has been soaring between 1991 and 2017 (World Bank Group, 2018a).

Why the interest in Youth Unemployment?

Kenya started undergoing the demographic transition in the late 1980s (Cross et al., 1991) Currently at the intermediate stage of the demographic transition, the country is experiencing the demographic dividend. Under this phase, the working-age population (15-64 years) is larger than the non-working age population (14 and younger, and 65 and older).

Ideally, the demographic dividend results in an accelerated economic growth in a country. With a decrease in non-working age population the dependency rate of a country highly decreases. This way, a country is able to invest more in economic development as more of its economic resources are freed up. For instance, in the 1960s when South Korea was in the middle of the demographic dividend, the falling birth rates resulted in a great reduction in elementary school enrolment making it possible for the government to utilise the resulting savings in improving the quality of higher-level education and creating more employment opportunities. Additionally, China in the early 1990s with a highly youthful population utilised the cheap and young labour force effectively earning it a reputation as the manufacturing capital of the world. Investing in education and job creation enabled some Asian countries and the currently developed economies of the world to reap from the demographic advantage they were presented with.

Like most African countries, Kenya faces a youth bulge with 80 percent of its population aged 35 years and below. The proportion of Kenya’s youth (aged 15-24)  to the overall population is among the highest globally. At 20.3 percent, Kenya’s proportion of youth to the overall population is above the world’s average of 15.8 percent and 19.2 percent for Africa.

Undeniably, the highly youthful population in Kenya presents the country’s economy with a vibrant manpower if put to productive use. However, the fact that Kenyan youth continue to be greatly affected by unemployment is indicative of the failure of the country to harness the manpower presented by the high youth population. The high unemployment of Kenyans in the working-age group has resulted in the country’s high dependency ratio of 81.5 percent, which is quite high by world standards (World Economic Forum, 2017).

Youth are an important age group in a given population as far as national development is concerned. Youth are the backbone of any nation and they determine the future of a nation. When the youth of a given nation continue to be victims of economic and social marginalisation as a result of surging youth unemployment, the future of such a nation is mostly bleak. This is especially true if the nation totally fails to adopt effective measures of empowering its youth both socially and economically.

Some Causes of Youth Unemployment in Kenya

The high rate of youth unemployment in Kenya is influenced by different factors. The main cause of the high rate of youth unemployment in Kenya is the failure of the economy to create adequate jobs. Every year, only about 6 percent of total youth joining the labour market manage to secure a job. This is due to the sluggish growth of the formal sector in Kenya. In 2017, the economy created only 85 600 new jobs, down from 90 200 in 2015 (World Bank Group, 2018a). Youth unemployment will persist as long as the number of youth joining the labour market annually continues to greatly exceed the number of new jobs the economy creates annually.

Secondly, lack of appropriate labour market skills is another cause of high youth unemployment in Kenya. At 85.9 percent, Kenya is among the African countries with the highest youth literacy rate. However, some educational and training institutions as well as the country’s education system emphasise on theory as opposed to technical and vocational skills that are equally essential in the labour market in Kenya. Consequently, potential employers have a hard time finding employees with the right talents and skills for the jobs their industries demand. There is need therefore to address the skills gap and skills mismatch through education that does not impede the youth from participating in the labour market.

In addition, Kenyan youth have limited access to capital and market. After failing to secure a formal job, most youth often consider self-employment. For most of these youth, the major constraint to venturing into business is lack of start-up capital. Banks consider youth to be high-risk borrowers, so most of them deny youth bank loans due to their lack of collateral. Those youth that manage to set up businesses lack market for their products as they receive no assistance in accessing markets.

It is also important to mention that the many licenses and controls the Kenyan government imposes on small businesses discourage many youth from venturing into business. Although the World Bank’s ease of doing business index in Kenya improved from position 92 in 2016 to position 80 in 2017, some of the worst performing indicators in 2017 include starting business and trading across borders, which ranked at 117 and 106 respectively out of the 190 countries surveyed (World Bank Group, 2018b).

Furthermore, most calls for application especially for jobs in the Public Service require applicants to possess work experience of between 10–15 years. This locks out most of the youth as they fail to meet the set requirement for experience. This raises a question of how one is expected to gain work experience, when no opportunity was availed to them.

The politicisation of employment takes a centre stage in this case too. Politics has resulted in the discrimination of youth on the basis of party affiliation and political alignment as some politicians give preference to their political supporters when it comes to employment. Qualified and capable youth are therefore locked out of employment on these grounds.

Additionally, corruption constrains job creation and impedes the employment of qualified youth. Transparency International’s 2017 corruption index placed Kenya 143rd out of 180 countries. Kenya had a below-average score of 28. This score is lower than the average score of Sub-Saharan Africa of 32. With an average score of 66, Western Europe was ranked as the best performing region (Transparency International, 2018). Cases of bribery, favouritism and extortion are always reported during the police recruitment process in Kenya. Although the government has established agencies mandated with addressing corruption, more stringent laws are needed to win war on graft in the country.

Finally, lack of information and knowledge among some Kenyan youth has resulted in them not enhancing their employability. Such youth, due to ignorance, will not consider other options such as self-employment, but will instead remain focused on finding white-collar jobs. When youth are informed, they are more likely to explore alternative income-generating opportunities such as farming. They will also be more creative and open-minded and form partnerships with government agencies and other stakeholders, which will lead to the creation of employment opportunities.

Relationship between Youth Unemployment and High Population in Kenya

The high population of Kenya has often been associated with the country’s challenge of youth unemployment. The current United Nations estimates indicate that with a current population of 51 233 327, Kenya ranks 29th globally in the list of top countries by population. In the East Africa, Kenya has the highest youth unemployment rate. On the contrary, with a population of 192.4 million, Nigeria is the world’s 7th most populous country yet it has a youth unemployment rate of 13 percent, which is much lower than Kenya’s 22 percent. In this regard, it can be argued that some country-specific factors are often responsible for youth unemployment and direct correlation between population growth and youth unemployment must be ruled out. Therefore, although the population of Kenya is rising at an alarming rate, it cannot fully explain the high youth unemployment in the country.

What Next?

The second Medium Term Plan (MTP) of Kenya’s development blueprint, Vision 2030, emphasises the “full implementation of devolution in the context of a rapidly growing economy, promoting equity, inclusiveness, and employment to meet the needs of youth.” In this regard, the Kenyan government has adopted various measures such as infrastructure development, public-private partnerships, integration of Information Computer Technology (ICT) in Technical and Vocational Training, provision of low-cost credit to youth, among others to create jobs for youth. However, the massive youth unemployment indicates that despite the current efforts by the government to create more jobs for the youth, more measures need to be put in place, as the existing measures have proven inadequate.

The surging youth unemployment presents insurmountable constraints on youth’s ability to becoming self-reliant; a crucial first step in transition to adulthood. Consequently, the resulting youth poverty holds major implications for their long term social and economic development. There is also a high risk of insecurity, as well as social and political instability, if a country fails to nurture its youthful population. The youth bulge then might become a demographic bomb, negatively impacting a country. For this reason, youth employment should be among a country’s top development priorities. A country’s policies should ensure that local structures and processes create a favourable economic and social environment in which the youth can thrive.

Tackling the youth unemployment crisis in any country requires the collective action of the government, private sector and individuals. The Kenyan youth can be commended for putting in efforts to help deal with the unemployment crisis. Most have ventured into business and farming instead of being fixated on formal employment. Many Kenyan youth have registered different organs such as youth groups and community based organisations (CBOs) which have the sole objective of empowering youth economically and socially. For instance, the Diaspora Youth Council (DYC) brings together all Kenyan youth in the diaspora and those at home, with the purpose of promoting youth empowerment, entrepreneurship and employment through education, networking, investment and knowledge-sharing. Nonetheless, there is still need for strengthening of the collective efforts of policy makers, the private sector and youth in order to effectively address the youth unemployment crisis in Kenya.

If Kenya effectively manages its current huge youthful population, this could be one of its major drivers of economic growth just as it did in the currently developed economies. As Winston Churchill once said, “The pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity. The optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” How does Kenya, and Africa, perceive its youthful population? An opportunity or a burden? Nevertheless, the future is bright, but Kenya needs to power up. Kenya still has the chance of redeeming herself by putting in place more effective strategies and prioritising youth unemployment as an important policy issue.


Cross A. R., Obungu, W. & Kizito, P. (1991). Evidence of a Transition to Lower Fertility in Kenya. International Family Planning Perspectives, 17(1):4-7.

Government of Kenya (2007). Kenya Vision 2030.

Government of Kenya (2011). The Constitution of Kenya.

International Labour Organization (2018). World Employment Social Outlook. Retrieved from—dgreports/—dcomm/—publ/documents/publication/wcms_615594.pdf

Janoski, T., Luke, D. & Oliver, C. (2014). The Causes of Structural Unemployment: Four Factors that Keep People from the Jobs they Deserve. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Kenya Diaspora Council (2018).

Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (2018).

Transparency International (2018). Retrieved from

World Bank Group (2018a). Unemployment, youth total. Retrieved from

World Bank Group (2018b). Doing Business 2018, Kenya. Retrieved from

World Economic Forum (2017). The Inclusive Growth and Development Report 2017. Retrieved from



Author: Audrey Museve

I have a strong background in the Social Sciences. As a social researcher, I am always intrigued by unearthing the driving forces of the society we live in. I set up this personal blog as a platform for sharing my Social Science knowledge, experiences and thoughts. I will not hesitate to respond to the users’ questions on the content herein as well as those related to social research.

4 thoughts on “Youth Unemployment: The Case of Kenya”

  1. Thanks for this insightful write-up. Sadly, we know the way out of this puddle but the willpower to implement is absent. Up until the point we become good at executing, nothing good will come out of our talk. As you correctly mentioned, “A country’s policies should ensure that local structures and processes create a favourable economic and social environment in which the youth can thrive.” For Kenya, well crafted policies and guidelines have been created but they are just gathering dust on shelves in different offices. What is holding back the implementation? Me, myself and I syndrome is holding back the implementation.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you, Gilbert for your thoughts. I agree, we are good at formulating policies, making good laws and designing good programmes but poor at implementing them. Without proper implementation, all these serve no purpose. Generally, the lack of goodwill and dedication; and the self-centred mindset as you mentioned, continues to hamper common good.


  3. Quite interesting! My social science background tended to focus on conflict/violence; to me, I see youth disenfranchisement as a major catalyst for social unrest. Look at the so-called Arab Spring. Many young people in various Middle Eastern countries, already under employed, reached their breaking point when Russia cut off wheat exports (thus driving up the costs of staples like bread practically overnight). There was kindling ready to be lit…the Egyptian gov’t was thrown in the trash and Iraq/Syria became (and still are) embroiled in a civil war. Leadership of any competence should realize how dangerous it can be to allow a large part of its population to be unrealized and restless.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Llowell for sharing your thoughts. For sure, the relationship between youth unemployment and social unrest cannot be overruled. The relentless global youth unemployment thus remains a global ticking time bomb. I hope other world countries learn from the Arab Spring, where youth unemployment was one of the key drivers.


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