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Understanding youth inequality

Copyright © 2023

Inclusive Society Institute PO Box 12609

Mill Street

Cape Town, 8000 South Africa 235-515 NPO All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means without the permission in writing from the Inclusive Society Institute D I S C L A I M E R

Views expressed in this report do not necessarily represent the views of

the Inclusive Society Institute or its Board or Council members.

Author: Percept Actuaries and Consultants

Editor: Daryl Swanepoel


This research has been enabled

through the generous support of

the Embassy of Denmark in Pretoria, South Africa


Executive summary


Defining youth and youth agency

The youth unemployment crisis

A life course approach to inequality


Early childhood


Early adulthood

Transitions into post-school education

Transition into the labour market

The experience trap

Young women’s disadvantage in the labour market

Financial exclusion

Social exclusion

Pathway support

The young workforce

Young people in the informal sector

Key interventions to alleviate youth inequality over the life course


Advance the Maternal Support Grant

Schools must implement national policy by supporting pregnant learners

and young mothers to stay in school

Early childhood

Government must invest in the ECD workforce and quality ECD services

Adolescence: basic education

Implement early warning systems

Open access to psychosocial support

Adolescence: post-school education

Support alternative pathways to a matric qualification

Improve TVET education in terms of access and quality

Early adulthood: transitions into work and between jobs

Employer readiness


Social protection

The young workforce

Enabling environments

Public employment

Youth citizenship and political participation

Executive Summary

Policy discourse in South Africa is preoccupied with the country’s vexing ‘triple threat’ of poverty, unemployment and inequality. What remains comparatively muted in these discussions is the reality that many South Africans have the odds stacked against them well before they reach their second birthday. Young people’s vulnerabilities rarely emerge out of a single crisis. More often, they reflect the cumulative effects of multiple events and pressures, which unfold in young people’s homes, institutions and communities, as well as in wider society. This report takes a ‘life course’ approach to youth inequality[1] that focuses on five critical life stages: perinatal, early childhood, adolescence, early adulthood, and the young workforce.

Young South Africans (aged 15-34) make up over a third of the country’s total population. They should be the engine of the economy, society, and democracy. But instead, nearly half of these young people are without work, education or training opportunities. While the working-age population is growing, the South African economy has struggled to keep pace. A key driver of youth inequality arises at the intersection of income levels, access to quality early learning programmes, and child outcomes. Children from contexts characterised by poor access to nutrition, inadequate living and infrastructural environments, and a lack of security and social protection have few opportunities for quality early learning and stimulation. They therefore enter school on a significantly uneven footing, vulnerable to worse health and developmental outcomes. Without the right support and intervention, this can impact their success in school, their future economic and social participation, and ultimately contributes to deepening inequality.

South Africa’s inequality is intergenerational and cyclical. Despite expanded access to health, education and social security in democratic South Africa, the livelihood prospects of children often remain tied to those of their parents. Two-thirds of Black children live below the poverty line compared to 2% of White children, which illustrates the racial dimension of entrenched inequality. Hence, youth inequality is locked in place by stubborn racial and class inequalities that limit access to quality schooling, propel learner dropout, and obstruct transitions into post-school education and employability. Furthermore, gender discrimination means that women bear the brunt of social reproduction, with many young women forced to participate in unpaid care work. Regardless of their level of qualification, women also earn less than their male counterparts. The knock-on effects of these racial, class and gender inequalities show up profoundly in infant and children’s lives, which is why the recommendations propose a maternal support grant to safeguard perinatal outcomes. By improving mothers’ wellbeing and nutrition, the wellbeing and nutritional status of their children will be positively impacted too.

This report draws attention to the important relationship between early influences and later outcomes in young people’s lives, while exploring their life trajectories in social, political, economic and cultural context, as youth are not a homogenous category. The analysis draws on transdisciplinary evidence to show not only how youth inequality accumulates over the life course, but also critical moments where policy and programming might intervene to alleviate inequality and safeguard more just futures for young people. This includes interventions that support pregnant women, invest in early childhood development, reduce school dropout, bolster alternative routes to matriculation and better match young people and employers.


South Africa is widely regarded as the most unequal country on earth.[2] By January 2020, the top 20% of the population earned over 68% of income[3]; while the bottom 40% of the population earned just 7% of income.[4] The country’s inequality is multidimensional,[5] transcending income and wealth to include matters of land, capital, and access to quality public services. This multidimensional inequality also intersects with gender, race, and geography in ways that entrench historical fault lines.

The country’s inequality is also viciously circular. It is both characterised, and reproduced, by a reality in which only four out of 10 young people have work.[6] While the working-age population has grown, job creation has not kept pace. This has given way to a backlog of young people without work, whose livelihoods are uncertain and whose opportunities of entering the labour market are narrowing. While there is stark inequality between young people and other generations in the labour market, there is also inequality between youth: young women have less access to employment, earnings and job security than men; and race and income remain tightly bound.

Policy discourse in South Africa is preoccupied with the vexing ‘triple threat’ of poverty, unemployment and inequality. What remains comparatively muted in these discussions is the reality that many South Africans have the odds stacked against them, well before they reach their second birthday. This is because the inequality is intergenerational. Notwithstanding expanded access[7] to health, education and social security in democratic South Africa, the livelihood prospects of children often remain tied to those of their parents.[8] Any meaningful shift in the stark, and long-entrenched inequality will demand that we unlock the social and economic mobility of these youth.

Defining youth and youth agency

‘Youth’ is a culturally constructed category, with different meanings in different places and times, and often involving contradictions[9]: The United Nations defines ‘youth’ as those aged between 15 and 24 years. In South Africa, youth consist of those aged 15 to 35 years,[10] as defined by South Africa’s National Youth Commission (NYC) Act of 1996. The essence of this categorisation, according to the act, is that because many older youth were disadvantaged by their role in the struggle against apartheid, they needed to be included in youth development initiatives.[11]

Today, the extension to 35 years of age continues to speak to the ambiguity and dynamism of youth transitions in the country, where some markers of adulthood – like having stable work or attaining educational qualifications – might be delayed; while others, like parenthood or domestic responsibility may begin in early adolescence. Young men, for example, might be culturally assigned as adults while still remaining economically dependent. In South Africa, most young people in their early twenties have some work experience, and one third of women at this age are mothers. But they also move in and out of employment and education, and many continue to live with their parents, delaying marriage and cohabitation. The fluctuations between, and overlapping of, assumed ‘child’ and ‘adult’ roles is most powerfully symbolised in teenage mothers. South African youth undertake household chores, raise younger siblings, and are sometimes involved in paid labour. Yet, despite their participation in social and economic processes, they remain marginalised from the formal political and economic domain.[12]

Dominant understandings of young people in South Africa have often reflected the political context of the time. In the 1980s and 1990s, researchers were preoccupied with young people as political activists.[13] Some positioned youth as irresponsible, irrational and uncontrolled opponents of apartheid, while others saw them as heroes of the liberation struggle. In both cases, ‘youth’ were treated as a homogenous entity, acting as one, with a unified set of motivations. In the early 1990s, a growing body of research sought to muddy constructions of youth as either ‘heroes’ or ‘villains’,[14] surfacing the complex range of motivations and circumstances that attracted young people to political action. Following the democratic transition, the militancy of adolescents who had boycotted against apartheid, stayed away from school, and challenged adult authority was rapidly recast as a liability. Nineties youth attracted labels like ‘the lost generation’ or ‘marginalised youth’ – a generation likely to threaten social stability. In the early years of democracy, the generation of young people who had left school to join the liberation struggle and were now seen to be ‘aimless’, provoked a sense of moral panic.[15] In the latter years of the decade, youth researchers adopted an increasingly policy-oriented focus, producing studies on ‘at-risk’ youth like AIDS orphans and street children.

Some have argued that the dominant line of cleavage in post-apartheid South Africa has been that of ‘generation’, and that young people’s lives in particular have been at the heart of post-1994 change.[16] In the ‘new’ South Africa, youth are positioned amidst a range of overlaying tensions, as opportunities and constraints shift.

On the one hand, democracy promises increased economic and social mobility for young Black South Africans, allowing them to aspire to possibilities previously denied to their parents. However, these new possibilities have emerged in a context of skyrocketing youth unemployment, a frequently dysfunctional education system, and other stark socio-economic inequalities that often make young people’s high ambitions unattainable. While the new constitution has protected the rights of children, especially in terms of independent access to healthcare,[17] this empowerment does not always translate into young people’s home or community lives. Instead, young people are especially vulnerable to physical, sexual and emotional abuse, and often take on a significant burden of unpaid household labour. To understand the lives of young people growing up in post-apartheid South Africa, one must appreciate both rapid change and oppressive continuity, which create stark ambivalences and contradictions in young people’s lives.[18]

Post-apartheid South African policy has described the country’s youth both as the “greatest threat to social stability” and as a “demographic dividend”.[19] The former invokes a “ticking time bomb” of increasingly impatient, disillusioned and economically inactive young people. The latter anticipates the economic potential of a disproportionately large working-age population. Indeed, young people are viewed with both trepidation and tremendous expectation.

These binaries have been symptomatic of political discourse for some time,[20] but fail to capture a much more ambiguous reality. By 2012, the South African Reconciliation Barometer[21] was showing that South African youth were optimistic about the future and confident in their ability to shape political decision-making, while at the same time being sceptical of political parties. Their expressions of agency and constraint were complex and varied, which was not reflecting in the dichotomies of policy discourse. Young people are all-too-often described as personifications of their circumstances – as instigators of violent service delivery protest, or as pawns in the political plays of organised labour, politicians and business. Rarely do we hear about young people as dynamic social and cultural agents.

There is now a robust and growing body of ethnographic literature on the everyday lives of young people in South Africa, with the earliest antecedent being Burman and Reynolds’[22] volume, ‘Growing up in a Divided Society: The Contexts of Childhood in South Africa’. In the early 1990s, social anthropologists Mamphela Ramphele[23] and Patti Henderson[24] worked with teenagers from New Crossroads township in Cape Town. Both described young people’s everyday mediation of high ambitions and harsh structural constraints. This work has since been furthered by qualitative research on the gulf between youth ambitions and their ad-hoc plan-making in light of limited resources.[25]

Acknowledging the “ambiguous agency”[26] of young people – as both vulnerable and virulent – might shift how we think about them, and how we intervene in their lives.

The youth unemployment crisis

South Africa is in the midst of a much-anticipated ‘demographic transition’: declining fertility rates and increasing life expectancy have meant that the ratio of working-age people to dependents is changing, giving rise to a growing, economically productive youth population and associated hopes for an economic boom (see Figure 1). This lower dependency ratio is unlike other upper-, middle-, or high-income countries, and represents an economic opportunity that other wealthier regions don’t have access to.

Young South Africans (aged 15-34) make up over a third of South Africa’s total population.[27] They should be the engine of the economy, society, and democracy. But instead, nearly half of young people are without work, education or training opportunities.[28]

While the working-age population is growing, the South African economy has struggled to keep pace: according to Quarterly Labour Force Statistics (QLFS), for example, the number of people employed increased by just under 2 million from 2007 to 2019, while the working-age population increased by 6.5 million over the same period.[29]

However, in the second quarter of 2022, the expanded unemployment rate (which includes discouraged job seekers) was over 72% for young people aged 15–24, compared to 51% for those aged 25-34 years, while the overall rate stood at around 44% (see Figure 2). This reality doesn’t shore up with the large economic opportunity presented by the lower dependency ratio.

Figure 1: Old-age dependency ratio across the globe

An analysis of QLFS data between Q1 2017 and Q2 2022 (see Figure 2) shows that this is not a new phenomenon. Rates of youth unemployment have been stubbornly high throughout the five-year period, increasing with the effects of Covid-19 lockdown, before returning to 2017 levels. And indeed, high youth unemployment rates long precede 2017: the earliest estimates of youth unemployment originate from the 1996 National Census, conducted just after the country’s transition to democracy and reported that 53.2% of young people between the ages of 15 and 34 were unemployed.[30]

Figure 2: Unemployment rate (expanded) by age group

Table 1: Unemployment rate (expanded) by age group

Among the working-age population, vulnerability in the labour market seems to decrease with age: youth in the younger age group are most severely affected by unemployment. Because of this, South Africa’s unemployment crisis is often framed as a ‘youth unemployment crisis’. Yet the root of the problem is the scarcity of quality jobs, the structural constraints within the South African economy, and the challenges of industrial change, rather than with young people themselves. Undoubtedly, young people are uniquely affected, and often uniquely vulnerable. Relative to older adults, they have less work experience and financial capital, weaker social networks and are prone to higher levels of informality and in-work poverty.

Young people’s vulnerability in the labour market means they are particularly affected by job and earning loss when financial shocks hit. National survey data show that, among those who lost jobs in April 2020 as a result of Covid-19 lockdown, young people were least likely to have recovered those jobs by October 2020.[31] We know that South Africa’s youth unemployment rates are significantly affected by high levels of early school-leaving which translates into low access to post-secondary education, and ultimately higher levels of unemployment.[32] More so, economic wellbeing is often an intergenerational transfer, with a large part of earnings inequality explained by the educational attainment of one’s parents.[33]

But ‘youth’ are also not a homogenous group; there are significant inequalities between them. In fact, this report shows that young people’s future chances often begin articulating in early childhood, setting in motion a range of inequities that tend to widen as children move through school and into the workforce. Race, geography and gender, all of which are outside of young people’s control, continue to constrain the possibilities available to them in profound ways. In 2022, 8.8 million young people (15-34 years old) in South Africa were not in employment, education, or training (NEET).[34] The majority of this group are Black, income-poor, without a qualification, and live in households with no employed members.[35]

Figure 3: Educational status attained by race

Moses, van der Berg, and Rich[36] suggest that there are a few primary routes through which young people from low-income households can achieve social mobility and ultimately access the upper end of the labour market: (1) by attending either moreaffluent schools or better-performing schools in poor communities; (2) by performing well in Grade 12, despite being in a lowerquality school, and acquiring enough resources to gain entry to university; or (3) by entering the labour market at the lower end and progressing upwards. This report will show the immense challenges entailed in all three paths: from undoing historic inequalities in access to quality education, to reaching and passing matric, to gaining university access, to gaining any momentum in the labour market (Figure 4). On their journey towards quality jobs, most of South Africa’s young people have the odds stacked against them, starting as early as their first years of life.

Figure 4: Road to South Africa’s youth unemployment rate

This report is about how those inequities play out over young people’s life course and what strategies we might take to interrupt them, both to improve their chances of social and economic mobility, and disrupt structural patterns of inequality.

A life course approach to inequality

This report takes a life course approach to youth inequality.[37] This approach draws attention to the important relationship between early influences and later outcomes in young people’s lives, while also exploring their life trajectories in social, political, economic and cultural context.

Young people’s vulnerabilities rarely emerge out of a single crisis. More often, they reflect the cumulative effects of multiple events and pressures, which unfold in young people’s homes, institutions and communities as well as in wider society. What happens to a child at each developmental stage is influenced by what happened at earlier stages, which means that for young people to reach their potential, we need enabling environments across the life course.[38]

For the purposes of this report, a life course approach entails four levels of analysis, which have also been used in global studies of youth vulnerabilities[39]:

The life course model frames development as a cumulative and continuous process and cautions against approaches to youth programming that would silo risks or particular age groups. It also implies that interventions should be tailored differently for different youth populations, given the unique combinations of risk and protective factors to which they are currently, and have previously been, exposed.[40]

To see a life course framing in action, let’s imagine the journey of the average South African child (Box 1). In a recent article[41] by Percept and the Inclusive Society Institute, we called them Nation.

Box 1: Nation’s story

​While pregnant, Nation’s mother will almost certainly be able to access antenatal care at her neighbourhood clinic. But she will also have a nearly 3 in 10 chance of experiencing antenatal depression.[42] Once Nation is born, important aspects of their emotional, social, and cognitive development, as well as their future health, will already start to coalesce.[43] The stimulation, nourishment and care Baby Nation receives will lay the foundations for their future learning, school performance, health and wellbeing. This, in turn, will affect their ability to participate meaningfully in social and economic life as a young adult.[44]

​If Nation is lucky, they may be one of the 6 in 10 South African children to benefit from the Child Support Grant in their critical first year of life.[45] This type of support is critical, since, as a toddler, Nation will have a 3 in 5 chance of growing up in poverty, and a 2 in 5 chance of living below the food poverty line.[46] This will reduce their chances of nutritional stunting, which is estimated to affect 27% of the country’s children, with ramifications for their future health, learning and earning prospects.[47]

​When Nation grows up, and becomes more independent, and their mother needs to find, create or return to work, Nation might be among the 32% of children (under age 4) to attend an Early Learning Programme (ELP).[48] These critical early learning services are delivered by a women-led, non-state and largely informal sector, including sole-proprietors, microenterprises and Non-Profit Organisations (NPOs). Since Nation has a less than 30% chance of their fees being subsidised by government,49 early learning will be expensive for their mother.

​By the time Nation turns five, they will have a less than 50% chance of being developmentally ready to start primary education.[50] This setback will make it harder for Nation to stay in, and succeed in school – with knock-on effects for their ability to enter the labour market and build a secure livelihood.

This may sound like a deterministic outcome: how can we possibly curb inequality if it has been set in motion from the womb? But, in fact, life course research tells us that intervening at critical points in a young person’s life course can radically alter not only their own trajectory, but also the trajectory of future generations.

This report draws on transdisciplinary evidence to show not only how youth inequality accumulates over the life course, but also critical moments where policy and programming might intervene to alleviate inequality and safeguard more just futures for young people. We focus on five critical life stages (see Figure 5), as described below:

a. Perinatal (period in-utero)

b. Early childhood (birth to 6 years)

c. Adolescence/basic education

d. Early adulthood/post-school transitions

e. The young workforce

Figure 5: Critical life stages


A healthy pregnancy is essential to safeguard the health and wellbeing of children in the critical early stages of their lives. For example, maternal stress, depression and anxiety in pregnancy can lead to lower birth-weight, increased attention and behavioural difficulties and sleep disorders for children.[51]

One of the greatest victories of the post-apartheid South African public health system has been its improved access for maternal and child health. Since 1998, Demographic Health Surveys have indicated that over 92% of women access Antenatal Care (ANC) services. But the timing of the first ANC visit, as well as the number of visits, are also important for child outcomes.[52] While availability of antenatal care has improved, pregnant women are still not accessing it early enough: only 67% of women have their first ANC visit before 20 weeks in South Africa.[53,54]

Despite the victories of clinic-based maternal and child health services, pregnant women in South Africa remain inordinately vulnerable. Research suggests that pregnant women in South Africa are 45.6% less likely than other women of reproductive age to earn an income.[67] In a Western Cape study, 71% of pregnant women were unemployed, and 83% of those reported no prospects of future employment.[55] The overrepresentation of women in the informal sector[56] means that many pregnant women who do earn an income will not be granted paid maternity leave.

Pregnant women’s unemployment and under-employment has significant implications for the health and wellbeing of both women and children, and can deepen pre-existing inequality. Robust research has shown that many life-long patterns of illness and health, as well as emotional and cognitive development, are catalysed in a child’s first years of life, especially during pregnancy.[57] The physiological and neurological capabilities accumulated in these early years influence not only child survival, but also their growth, learning and ability to rise out of poverty.[58]

Just over a quarter (27%) of South Africa’s children under five are believed to be nutritionally stunted,[59] making them more likely to drop out of school, struggle to find work, and live in poverty. More recent data suggests significantly more conservative figures among children (aged 50-59 months, or between four and five years old) attending early learning programmes, where moderate and severe stunting was found to be at 5.7%.[60] Growth deficits at a young age have long-term effects on social and cognitive development.[61] Undernutrition, with stunting being one of its more severe consequences, is not only a manifestation of poverty, but also “one of the key mechanisms by which poverty – and its consequences – are transmitted intergenerationally”.[62]

Stunting is driven, in part, by mothers’ mental health and nutritional status,[63] and research indicates that pregnant women in poorer communities are experiencing high rates of food insecurity and depression.[64] Nearly four in 10 of the pregnant women surveyed between 2020 and 2021 in the Western Cape reported going to bed hungry in the previous week, while six out of 10 had felt depressed.[65]

Currently, there is low uptake of the Child Support Grant (CSG) among caregivers with 0-2-year olds who meet the criteria due to lags in registration. Surveys of more than 5,000 children conducted between 2018 and 2022 in nine food-vulnerable districts in South Africa, show that 44% of children under one year old were not benefitting from a child support grant.[66] As a result, the grant is not as effective as it could be.

Early childhood

There are about 6.5 million children in South Africa under the age of six; 4 million of them live in the poorest 40% of households.[67] This means that the majority of children are born into contexts that make it difficult for them to realise their potential. These contexts are characterised by poor access to nutrition, inadequate living environments, a lack of security and social protection, and few opportunities for quality early learning and stimulation.[68]

Far too many children experience malnutrition and toxic stress. Research shows that across all developmental domains, outcomes were worst among the poorest children, and best among the wealthiest children.[69] This means that children from poor backgrounds enter school on significantly unequal footing, with impacts on their success in school, and their ultimate economic and social participation.[70] The relationship between income levels, access to quality early learning programmes, and child outcomes, is a key driver of South African inequality. To alleviate inequality, we must find ways to reduce this gap before it is widened in later years.

Although adults are still more likely than children to live in urban homes, a significant majority (57%) of South Africa’s young children (below the age of six) now live in cities and major metros, and this proportion is increasing.[71] Meanwhile, 3 million children under six still live in rural areas, primarily in the former homelands.[72] Rates of poverty for young children are highest in Limpopo, KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape.[73] Whether urban or rural, children who grow up in poor living conditions – with inadequate water, sanitation or energy – are vulnerable to worse health and developmental outcomes.[74] Poor sanitation, in particular, has strong links to rates of childhood stunting.[75] In 2019, almost a third (29%) of young children live in households without piped water on site.[76] Young children who grow up in poor households are at highest risk of being excluded from early learning and health services because they cannot afford transport to clinics or government offices, or because the fees of early learning programmes are unaffordable.

Early Childhood Development (ECD) services – including nutrition, early learning, healthcare and social services – can facilitate children’s development and future chances, increasing primary school enrolment, improving academic performance and reducing school dropout.[77] Although access to early learning programmes has expanded over time, there is still stark inequality in the distribution and quality of programmes, and the level of funding from the government.[78] Deeply entrenched inequality is also illustrated by the fact that two-thirds of Black children live below the poverty line compared to 2% of White children.[79]

Currently, only about 1.5% of the country’s GDP is spent on ECD, most of which goes to child support grants. A mere 6.5% of this budget is allocated for early learning, nutrition support and supportive parenting programmes.[80] While early learning in South Africa is a heterogenous and predominantly informal sector, the current institutional framework for supporting Early Learning Programmes (ELP) is geared towards formal and registered providers. This means that the vast majority of ELPs are excluded from any government oversight or support. Of the estimated 70,000 ELPs, only around 16,000 – 20,000 are formally registered.[81]

ELP attendance is partly a function of age: children under the age of two are least likely to attend an ELP. But it is also a function of income – Figure 6 shows ELP attendance for children age 3-5 years old by income quintile.

Figure 6: Early learning programme attendance for 3-5 year-old children by income quintile

Source: Hall, K. et al. 2017. South African Early Childhood Review[82]

The ability of parents or caregivers to afford ELP fees will continue to be a driving factor for ELP access – and indeed inequality – without wider and deeper public financing.[83]

The first step to giving children an equal start in life is to ensure that all young children have access to quality and comprehensive early childhood development services.[84] If not, these foundational setbacks become more and more difficult to overcome as they move through school and into adult life.


Access to basic education has improved dramatically in South Africa. By the early 1990s, the country had near-universal enrolment rates at primary school level. Between 1985 and 2007, secondary school enrolment had risen from 51% to 91%.[85]

Despite arriving on unequal footing, almost every young person in South Africa starts school. But, from the moment they enter a Grade 1 classroom, most will have the odds of success stacked against them. Only four out of every 10 Grade 1’s reach and pass Grade 12.[86] Rather than being a once-off event, school dropout is a process, propelled by a range of factors in young people’s schools, homes and communities that serve to either push or pull them from school (Figure 7).[87]

Figure 7: Predictors of school drop-out

The school environment can either be a protective or a risk factor in driving learner dropout. School is a vital space for education. But beyond learning, a quality school environment can also play other important roles in young people’s lives, offering them safety, socialisation, freedom and community. This can deepen young people’s attachment to school and make it less likely that they will drop out. However, many learners continue to feel unsafe, uncomfortable and unstimulated at school. Bullying, absent teachers, irrelevant curricula and poor sanitation are just some of the factors that make learning difficult and often drive learners from school.[88]

An obstructive learning environment can contribute to learners’ academic struggles, which are another important predictor of dropout, particularly for those who start to fall behind early on. The early years of school are about building a basic understanding of words and numbers. Without the basic tools to understand what is being taught, further learning cannot take place and it becomes very difficult for learners to progress through the curriculum.[89] Robust research suggests that the South African education system is failing children in these early years.[90] By Grade 4, less than half of the learners who started Grade 1 three years earlier, are on track academically, and many are older than the expectation for their grade. In the poorest schools (quintiles 1 and 2), only one in three of these learners are on track.[91]

Grade repetition is the single greatest predictor of school dropout.[92] Over 1 million school learners repeat grades each year.[93] An estimated 20% of learners in Grades 10-12 are three or more years over-age, having repeated grades.[94] In 2018, the cost of repetition to the public schooling system was estimated at R20 billion – 8% of the annual basic education budget.[95]

Government progression policy does not allow learners to repeat a grade more than once per ‘phase’, whether Foundation Phase (Grade R-3), Intermediate Phase (Grades 4-6) or Senior Phase (Grades 7-9), or Further Education and Training (Grades 10-12). Instead, learners failing for a second time simply ‘progress’ to the next grade, but often without the academic support they need to succeed.[96]

Learners that are struggling academically can feel alienated and inadequate, deepening their sense of disengagement from school.[97] As they fall further behind, some might feel unable to catch up, or that they don’t have the academic ability to complete their schooling. In South Africa, boys are significantly more likely to repeat grades than girls, which is undoubtedly a significant driver of their higher dropout rates.[98]

National survey data over the course of 2020–2021 showed that the Covid-19 pandemic had amplified disruptions to education: deepening learning losses, reducing access to school meals, and exacerbating learner disengagement from school.[99]

Outside challenges in the learning environment and academic curricula can push young people from school. Young people can also be pulled from school by pressures at home or in their communities. Given that most young people across South Africa attend no-fee-paying schools, it may come as a surprise that many don’t have the financial resources to complete their basic education. Even those enrolled in no-fee-paying schools, or supported by government bursaries, often struggle to make ends meet because of the added costs of education, which include uniforms, learning materials, transport, and stationery.[100]

In rural areas in particular, barriers to schooling extend beyond finances: many must travel long distances to the classroom. In his research in the Mpumalanga province, Lawrence Mboweni[101] found that young children aged between seven and 13 years walked a total of 16km each day to and from school. Along these journeys, children face many possible dangers. In KwaZulu-Natal, children have been reported to be crossing a lake with hippos in order to reach school.[102]

Many learners undertake household chores and caregiving responsibilities that, in some contexts, can pull them away from their schoolwork. Girls and young women tend to carry a greater burden of caregiving and domestic responsibilities, which can limit time for homework and even keep them from the classroom.[103] In rural areas, girls and young women carry an especially heavy load of household duties, carrying water and fetching firewood.[104] Covid-19 and lockdown also exacerbated burdens for girls: when relatives fell sick or there were younger siblings at home and in need of childcare, girls were more likely to take on caregiving responsibilities than boys.[105]

South African public discourse is gripped with moral anxiety over pregnancy among adolescent girls, partly because of its perceived age-inappropriateness, and partly because of the possible impacts on the wellbeing of mothers, families, and children. Notwithstanding the recent dramatic spike in young pregnancy over the Covid-19 lockdown,[73] South Africa’s adolescent fertility rates have been steadily declining over the years, dropping by 27% over the past 50 years.[74] Although adolescent girls are more likely to fall pregnant in South Africa than in other upper middle-income countries, the country’s adolescent fertility rate is well below the sub-Saharan African average.[106]

Research[107] tells us that there is a mutually reinforcing relationship between pregnancy and school dropout: young women that leave school are at higher risk of falling pregnant, while pregnant youth are also at higher risk of leaving school. In addition to financial pressures, parenting learners carry the responsibility of childcare, which can affect their ability to stay in, and succeed at, school. What is often missing from the story is the role that schools, families, and policymakers play in determining whether a young mother returns to school or not. For many girls and young women, an unintended pregnancy means social stigma and isolation, along with major disruptions to schooling. Without the right type of support, the physical toll of pregnancy, regular antenatal visits, and caring for a newborn often come at the expense of young women’s schooling. Research into the effects of early childbearing on young people’s educational and economic attainment show that delaying childbearing can improve young women’s educational outcomes as well as their chances of employment.[108]

In South Africa, young people without a matric year, or an equivalent qualification (Level 4 of National Qualifications Framework), are often cut off from pathways to tertiary education, employment and higher earnings. They not only struggle more than their peers to find work, they also remain unemployed for longer periods of time, and if they do find work, have less stable and lower earning jobs.[109]

Figure 8: The Qualifications Hierarchy: Outcomes of the 2008 Matric Cohort

Source: Spaull, N. 2016. Important Research Inputs on #FeesMustFall

Levels of qualification also affect job security, which also means that in economic downtimes, those with fewer qualifications are disproportionately affected. From 2017 Q1 to 2022 Q1, overall employment decreased 8%.[110] Within that figure, employment among those with tertiary qualifications decreased 4%; matric-educated employment decreased 8%; and those with less than matric saw an employment decrease of 20%.

School completion rates in South Africa are both a driver, and a reflection, of South Africa’s inequality. Dropout rates differ significantly by race. Black and Coloured youth are half as likely to complete Grade 12 as their White and Indian counterparts.[111] Young Coloured men appear to be at highest risk of dropping out: one survey showed that 29% of 16-18-year old Coloured men were not in school.[112] But across genders, it is Black youth who are at highest risk of dropout. This is certainly not for want of trying, since young Black learners also tend to stay in school for longer, repeat more grades, and leave school at an older age.[113]

Because of the country’s history, race in South Africa is a proxy for other inequalities. Different races have different dropout rates because of how South Africa’s education system, together with its towns and cities, were planned under apartheid. Apartheid spatial planning gave White families privileged access to quality schools and urban infrastructure. These inequities have persisted in the post-apartheid context, such that poor, Black and particularly rural youth are disadvantaged in their access to quality education, which would otherwise improve their access to jobs and advance their social mobility.[114] In the poorest 80% of schools, only 1% of Grade 8 learners will go on to pass matric and be eligible to study maths and science at university (i.e. achieve above 60% for these subjects). In the wealthiest 20% of schools, nearly ten times as many learners will pass Grade 12 with these grades.[115]

Early adulthood

Transitions into post-school education

Young people who leave school with a matric certificate have a labour absorption rate of 31.5% (see Figure 9 below), 13.8% percent higher than for those without one (17.8%). But chances of finding work are improved exponentially by a tertiary qualification, which increases absorption rates by a further 26.8%. Tertiary-educated youth have a labour absorption rate of 58.0%.

Figure 9: Absorption rate by education status

This is also borne out in the expanded unemployment rate for young people (aged 15–34) by education level (see Figure 10). While having a matric certificate marginally decreases young people’s chances of being unemployed, it is only when this certificate is used as a passport to a tertiary qualification that chances of being employed are exponentially increased. This is partly because the economy of South Africa has shifted to one in which higher levels of skills are increasingly in demand.[116]

Figure 10: Unemployment rate (expanded) by education status

We know that most young people who drop out of school do so between Grades 10 and 12. Despite having completed compulsory schooling, historically they have had no formal qualification to aid their transition into further training or employment. The proposed General Education Certificate (GEC)[117] is intended to address this problem, giving those who have completed Grade 9 a national certificate. While the Technical and Vocational Education and Training system (TVET) should provide young people with a Grade 9 or GEC qualification opportunities to further their education, very few young people without a matric access these institutions.[118] Among young people without a matric, only 1% have some other school certificate or diploma (from a TVET college for example).[119] Quarterly Labour Force statistics show that as many as three in 10 young people in this category (aged 15-24) are not only unemployed, but are also not enrolled in education or training.[120]

TVET enrolment is low, in part because unlike university degrees, TVET qualifications are not perceived to improve young people’s employability.[121] There is further evidence that young people’s aspirations for a university degree, and for a professional career as opposed to a menial job, also contribute to them valuing university education over TVET education.[122] TVET education has therefore often carried with it assumptions of inferiority, which have been exacerbated by difficulties with the quality of teaching and learning at these institutions.[123]

Research shows that, rather than acting as an alternative route to a matric-level qualification, TVETs have become ways for young people who already have a matric certificate to bide time, before qualifying for a university degree programme or finding a job.[124]

Despite the important impact that a post-school qualification can have on young people’s future, most who start a tertiary level programme do not complete it: only 60% of university undergraduates, for example, complete their degrees within 6 years.[125] TVET students are even less likely to graduate.[126]

Notwithstanding increased access to post-school education,[127] only 8% of 15-24-year olds attend a university or college, and even fewer complete their qualifications.[128] Culture shock, poor quality teaching, social exclusion, bullying, along with physical and mental illness can constrain young people in completing their qualifications, particularly if they are from vulnerable or rural homes.[129] In 2016, the Dell Foundation, which offers bursaries to students in two top South African universities, published a report about the types of support that students felt they most needed. 50% said psychosocial and community support made the most difference to their success.[130]

Low rates of access to and completion of post-school qualifications contribute to stubborn racial and class inequities in youth employment outcomes.[131] An analysis of QLFS data between Q1 2017 and Q2 2022 shows marked, and continued, inequality in unemployment by race (see Figure 11). This illustrates the stubbornness of apartheid-era racial hierarchies, and reflects broad, historical patterns in educational attainment by race (see Table 2).

Figure 11: Unemployment rate (expanded) by race

In South Africa, 60% of young people either leave school before matric, or have failed their matric exam, and are left without any kind of recognised educational qualification. And yet, chances of finding work are improved exponentially by a tertiary qualification. Any meaningful shift in South Africa’s stark, and long-entrenched, inequality will demand that we unlock the social and economic mobility of these youth.

Table 2: Youth education status by race, 2017 Q1 and 2022 Q2

Transition into the labour market

South Africa’s fast-growing labour force presents both a tremendous challenge and an unprecedented opportunity. Over the past five years (Q1 2017 – Q2 2022), South Africa’s working-age population has continued to grow steadily: from 37.1 million in the first quarter of 2017 to 40.0 million in the first quarter of 2022.

When they leave school, young people in South Africa enter a world of uncertainty, often unprotected. Many will lose the routine, daily meals, and adult mentorship that the school environment provided. When they turn 18, those who had benefited from a child support grant will stop receiving it, putting added financial pressure on their households.[132]

Among those without a matric qualification, there are a variety of different pathways in terms of movement into and out of the labour market. An analysis of five waves of the National Income Dynamics Survey shows that over a 10-year period, two-thirds of young people who had not completed Grade 12 experienced some degree of churn in the labour market, with a smaller proportion remaining consistently in or out of employment and the education system.[133]

But even within this group, there is significant inequality. The consequences of not having a matric certificate differ depending on young people’s connectivity to the labour market. Those from poorer households and disadvantaged schools are more likely to be long-term unemployed, which translates into poorer mental health and subjective wellbeing.[134]

Between 2008 and 2021, the number of young people who had been looking for work for more than three years tripled.[135] The number who had given up entirely, tripled.[136]

Figure 12 shows the composition of the working-age population across its four constituent categories over the period 2017 Q1 – 2022 Q2.

Figure 12: Composition of the working-age population

Table 3: Composition of the working-age population

Over this time, the employed population shrunk from 16.2 million to 15.6 million despite the overall growth in the working-age population, while the other three categories all grew: unemployed from 6.2 to 8.0 million, discouraged job-seekers from 2.3 to 3.6 million, and other not economically active from 12.4 to 13.1 million. This underscores the size of the challenge for South Africa: in a period in which the working-age population has grown by over 8%, the economy was able to accommodate 4% fewer in employment.

The rising number of discouraged job-seekers is a pressing concern for South Africa, reflecting not only the financial and psychosocial cost of job-seeking but also deepening chronic unemployment. Research suggests that the longer someone is unemployed, the more difficult it becomes to find work, not only because they become increasingly discouraged, but also because employers view them as riskier hires.[137] South African research[138] suggests that unemployment is also associated with stigma and shame, as well as stress, depression and anxiety, which in turn make it more difficult for people to seek and find work. Over the past five years, the number of young job-seekers (aged 15–34) who have grown discouraged (i.e. had not acted to find work in the previous four weeks) has increased by almost 40%.[139]

The experience trap

Part of the challenge of the job search is in how to gain, and then signal, experience as an entry-level worker. Qualitative evidence suggests that young people are frequently denied jobs or interviews on the basis of their ‘lack of experience’.[140] A Western Cape survey of middle-class youth showed that those who gained some work experience during high school transitioned more easily into the workplace than those without experience.[141] This is reinforced by national panel data, which shows that school learners and tertiary students who undertook part-time work were more likely to be permanently employed.[142] Indeed, after race and gender, being able to demonstrate some work experience appears to be the most important factor in finding work in South Africa, regardless of whether it is formal or informal, paid or voluntary.[143]

But how does one gain experience if experience is often an entry-requirement for work opportunities? Indeed, part of the reason that unemployment is so high for young people is that many struggle to gain first entry into the labour market. The unemployment rate (using the narrow definition) is markedly worse (63.9%) for younger youth (aged 15-24) than older youth (aged 25-34). Some evidence suggests that, by the time they turn 24, 60% will have never had a job before.[144] Long-term unemployment, as well as an extended and unsuccessful job search, can lead to discouragement and depression among young people.[145]

In 2019, the South African government relaxed requirements for prior work experience for job openings in the public sector. But the ‘experience trap’ has nevertheless remained a major barrier for young job-seekers. In a context where employers often receive large numbers of applicants, many continue to use level of experience (along with formal qualifications) as a sifting tool.

Young women’s disadvantage in the labour market

Young women are most likely to be stuck outside of employment,[146] owing in large part to domestic and childcare responsibilities.[147] South Africa has achieved parity in school enrolment, and although girls and women generally outperform boys and men as they move through primary, secondary and tertiary education, they continue to fare worse in the labour market. International research suggests that equity in education does not necessarily translate to workplace equity, often because of the motherhood wage penalty.[148] But women not only have worse wages, they are also less likely to be employed, despite often having higher qualifications.

In the second quarter of 2022, 13.2% of women had tertiary qualifications compared to 11.2% of men, and 46.7% had completed secondary education compared to 43.5%. Yet despite being more qualified than men, women fare worse than men in the labour market.

Figure 13 shows that young women (aged 15-34) are being absorbed into the workforce at a far lower rate than young men at all qualification levels. This can be partially explained by maternity, domestic and childcare responsibilities forcing women to opt out of the workforce.

While their analysis was not particular to youth, Schoer and Leibbrandt[149] show that domestic responsibilities can also keep women from the job search. In the early months of the 2020 Covid-19 lockdown, women accounted for two-thirds of net job losses and have also been slower to recover employment since. This was attributed, in part, to inequities in time spent on childcare.[150]

Figure 13: Youth absorption rate by gender and education status

While women’s disproportionate caregiving responsibilities may be part of the story, Figure 14 shows that even for young women who opt into the workforce and are actively seeking work, young women with the same qualifications have higher unemployment rates than men, suggesting gender discrimination in the labour market. Gender discrimination in the labour market means that young women’s full economic participation remains untapped, and targeted policy and programmes are needed to redress gender disadvantage.

Figure 14: Youth unemployment rate (narrow) by gender and education status

This is further confirmed by looking at the proportional difference between male and female absorption and expanded unemployment rates. These statistics are calculated as female divided by male, and emphasise the magnitude of the gaps shown in the previous two graphs. In the first section, “Absorption rate”, the table shows how much less likely women are than men to be absorbed into the workforce. In the second, “Expanded unemployment rate”, it shows how much more likely women are to be unemployed.

Overall, the gaps seem to be slowly shrinking over time. However, there is a long way to go. In 2022 Q2, a matric-educated woman is 20.9% less likely to be absorbed into employment than a man with the same education and 10.1% more likely to be unemployed.

Table 4: Proportional gender gaps in select employment statistics by education level

Financial exclusion

In 2019, the Siyakha Youth Assets Study estimated that young South Africans spent an average of R938 a month looking for work[151]: about R558 for transport and an added R380 for internet access, printing, application fees, and agent’s fees.[152] The cost of job-seeking was more than young people’s monthly income (an average of R527), which meant that many could not look for work without becoming indebted. Nearly two-thirds of young people in South Africa relied on family members to help fund the cost of job-seeking.[153] Many have to weigh up the costs of job-seeking with basic necessities.[154]

In 2021, a Youth Capital survey of over 2,000 young people across the country suggested that eight in 10 young people were choosing between looking for work and buying food.[155]

Apartheid spatial planning exacerbates inequalities in the job search. Because poor youth typically still live either in townships on the outskirts of the cities, or in less economically-developed rural areas, they are often removed from where jobs and industry are located and lack reliable, affordable transport.[156] Ironically, it is then the poorest youth for whom work-seeking is most expensive. Even if these young people find work, the costs of getting to and from work, means that they ultimately make less income. And in fact, there are some jobs that would cost them money to accept.[157] It is perhaps unsurprising then that several studies have found that when households start receiving social grants, there is a positive association with job-seeking among working-age household members.[158]

Even before Covid-19 lockdown, almost 90% of young people were using the internet to look for work, with mobile data being among their biggest expenses.[159] But with only 10% of South Africa’s population having internet access at home,[160] the majority of young people are dependent on local hotspots, internet cafés and mobile data. High data costs impact how young people access information on education and work opportunities, producing a digital divide between better-resourced and connected youth, and those with limited connectivity or resources.

Given the financial and psychosocial costs of the job search, it is unsurprising that three out of four young people in a 2019 study reported having been looking for work for more than a year.[161] Nearly one in 10 had given up the job search altogether.[162]

Social exclusion

Most people in South Africa find jobs through friends and family, who either refer them to employers, tell them about work opportunities, offer start-up capital, or lend them money to fund the job search. Employers also often rely on employees to refer people they know and trust when there are job openings. In the early 1990s, researchers found two dairies in Gqeberha and Cape Town that had recruited all their staff from a single Ciskei village, propelled through a chain of referrals.[163] Indeed, a strong body of South African evidence[164] shows the power of social ties and social privilege in determining entry, stability and success in the labour market. This reality means that having social ties to people already in the labour market is critical to gaining entry. But as many as four in 10 young people find themselves on the margins of the labour market, living in homes with no employed members.[165]

In the Eastern Cape, the proportion of young people living in homes where no one is employed increases to almost 60%, and in the poorest municipalities in the country, as much as 80%.[166] Because of the interplay between class privilege, social networks and economic power, some researchers[167] have argued that the South African labour market can be split into two camps: a wellconnected group of ‘insiders’, and a second (much larger) group of ‘outsiders’, whose social exclusion locks them out of quality work opportunities.

Pathway support

The South African labour market experiences a high degree of churn. This has been especially acute over the past few years as a consequence of Covid-19 lockdown. National survey data tracking employment dynamics between February 2020 and March 2021 showed that 23% of participants who had been employed in February were no longer employed the following year, while 30% who had been jobless in February 2020 had found jobs by March 2021.[168] But young people were experiencing this churn well before Covid-19 struck.

Many of South Africa’s young workers will cycle through short-term training, jobs or self-employment opportunities, struggling to find a stable foothold in the labour market. Young people who do find jobs often battle to keep them. Instead, they find themselves moving in and out of training, informal work, and short-term positions, unable to translate their experience into stable employment.[169] Although chronically unemployed and transitory unemployed people in South Africa share many of the same characteristics – they tend to be Black, women and younger – transitory-unemployed people are 10 times more numerous than chronically-unemployed people.[170] This reality, coupled with the increase in part-time jobs, means that policy and programming must be designed to support those in transitory employment, bridging them to their next opportunity.

The young workforce

Like much of the rest of the world, wage labour has been a central economic, social, and political organising force in South Africa: first through colonial and then apartheid capitalist accumulation.[171] Both enforced the employment of Black men on the mines and attached urban residence with formal employment. Over the second half of the 20th century, the South African economy grew exponentially, shifting from agriculture to minerals, and finally to manufacturing.[172] But these structural changes in the economy were also attended with some of the widest unemployment rates in the world and deepening inequality.

Since the final decades of apartheid, the economy has become increasingly capital- and skills-intensive,[173] while growth has stalled. Today, the services sector is the key to both growth and employment, while agriculture, mining, and manufacturing have contracted significantly.[174]

South African youth face a future without the prospect of industrial waged work and uncertain possibilities for livelihoods in the agricultural sector. Despite skyrocketing unemployment, South African social protection is reserved for those presumed unable to work (children, the elderly, and the disabled), while there is no direct support for the young and unemployed.

Structural change towards a service-oriented economy is reflected in young people’s rates of employment in key industries. Among those young people (aged 15-34) who were employed in the second quarter of 2022, 24% were employed in community, social and personal services; 24% in wholesale and retail; and 16% in financial intermediation, insurance, real estate and business services. In other words, the vast majority (about 64%) of young people who are employed, are employed in these service-driven industries. Between Q1 2019 and Q2 2022, the proportions of those employed in mining and manufacturing decreased across the board, but particularly for young people (see Table 5).

Table 5: Youth versus overall proportion of employed across industries

While some sub-sectors of the service industry are able to absorb low- and medium-skilled workers, the overall absorption capacity of the sector is severely restricted, particularly since most young job-seekers have limited formal qualifications.

One diagnosis of the youth unemployment problem is a ‘supply-side problem’. Here it is argued that the primary driver of youth unemployment is that young people do not have the right qualifications, technical or ‘soft’ skills to meet the needs of a changing labour market. This includes the skills demanded by a growing digital economy, as well as the shift to a high-skill, service-oriented sector.