Leaving No One Behind: Young People are Central to LDCs’ Employment Recovery

16 December 2020

Youth unemployment and underemployment were already major and growing concerns in the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) prior to the onset of the pandemic; not least because people aged 15-24 account for 20 per cent of the population and fertility rates remain high. Most of the youth live in rural areas, where agriculture and non-farm activities are unable to offer the quantity and quality of jobs necessary to meet their employment demands.

Multiple shocks stemming from the COVID-19 crisis are exacerbating those decent work deficits, compounding pre-existing challenges faced by young women and men. This, in turn, compromises development prospects and threatens to tear apart the social fabric.

There are four main reasons why young people in LDCs are especially vulnerable to the COVID-19 pandemic:

  1. Youth are overrepresented in impacted sectors

Containment measures and sharp contractions in external demand have acutely affected economic and labour market prospects in LDCs. Sectors that are most at risk include tourism, manufacturing, and services. Amongst those sectors, young people represent a large percentage of the workforce and their livelihoods are under threat. Garment manufacturing, for instance, represents 25 per cent and 35 per cent of young women employed in Bangladesh and Cambodia, respectively. [1] According to an ILO brief, the public health crisis has affected millions of garment workers, leading to reduced working hours and incomes, as well as job losses.

  1. More often than not young workers are engaged in the informal economy

For young people in LDCs employment is often informal. This means that these workers are typically not subject to national labour legislation, employment benefits or, importantly, social protection. In Sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, only 4.2 per cent of workers have access to unemployment benefits.

  1. Young women and men have little or nothing to fall back on

Even a few weeks of lockdown and reduced earnings can have severe economic implications for young people, who have had little career time to build up cash reserves and have nothing to fall back on in tough times. For most, returning to their families is the main safety net, worsening the burden on already fragile households. Similarly, young entrepreneurs, who often face financial and social capital constraints, have felt the harsh impacts of the crisis.

  1. COVID-19 constrains opportunities for education, training and work-based learning, which may carry consequences in the future

While mandated workplace and school closures have been necessary to tackle the health crisis and keep contagion rates at bay, they inflict a heavy toll on young persons and workers by disrupting learning, destroying employment and, in turn, undermining their career prospects.

Only 20 per cent of the population have access to the internet in LDCs, thereby precluding any possibility of online and distance learning or teleworking.

Even in the worst of crises, youth are often better equipped to take advantage of new technologies (such as emerging digital technologies in e-commerce) and adjust to new skills demanded in the evolving workplace. Policy design is important to provide those young women and men with opportunities, keeping them active and inspired. If young workers are left idle with scant career prospects, economic recovery is likely to be weak and adverse outcomes may become commonplace.

The economic fallout of COVID-19 may give way to precipitous increases in already high rates of individuals that are not in education, employment, or training (NEET) and, ultimately, exacerbate poverty and hunger. This carries severe social and economic consequences:

  • Social effects: The economic crisis has widened pre-existing inequalities in access to health services, livelihoods and decent work. This will force young people into negative coping strategies, such as cutting down on consumption to the bare minimum, or taking out predatory loans from informal moneylenders.
  • Economic effects: Weak human capital growth will constrain productive capacities over the long run, which restricts countries’ abilities to produce sustainable economic growth and improve their development prospects.

Key opportunities for a job-rich recovery and resilience

Governments, employers and workers in LDCs, as well as the international community, can do much to promote a job-rich recovery and build back better from the COVID-19 crisis.

Opportunities are vast considering young people are more digitally-fluent, more entrepreneurial and, overall, more adaptable and agile. Young women and men are also particularly mobile with regards to searching and finding a job, within and across borders - for instance, young migrants make up more than 14 per cent of the overall 213.5 million working-age migrants, and constitute the bulk of annual migration movements.[2] 

These are five policy priorities to promote a job-rich recovery and build back better with youth at its core: 

  1. International assistance is critical: The lack of fiscal space accounts for the main constraint to effectively tackling the employment and economic damage of the pandemic in LDCs, therefore sustained international support is paramount.
  2. Protect the youth in and out of employment: Expanding social assistance beyond the formal economy, including provision of cash-transfers and in-kind necessities, to ensure those that have lost their job or earnings are able to avoid impoverishment.
  3. Youth employment strategies: Policies implemented by governments to support a job-rich recovery ought to focus on youth and establish a framework to support a decent employment creation strategy for young people. One immediate approach might be employment-intensive public employment programmes (PEPs), as well as providing subsidies to support those hard hit by the crisis.
  4. Infrastructural investment: Countries need to take a hard look and review their development strategies, targeting their investment in infrastructure, capacities and institutions (in particular in relation to ICT) to take advantage of employment opportunities for the youth within local and regional production systems.
  5. Invest in skills and entrepreneurship: Skills development systems need to be updated and tailored towards the growing demands of the global economy. With the expansion of internet connectivity, it is essential that young workers possess the required skills and expertise to harness the digital dividend. Above all, it is crucial that young, talented individuals entering and within the labour force are provided with opportunities to put forward IT-enabled grassroots innovations and entrepreneurship from emerging sectors, such as green and digital economy, as well as health and care services.

Based on current demographic trends, one-in-five of the world’s youth will be born in an LDC by 2030. Policies that provide those young women and men with education, training, job opportunities and prospects for decent livelihoods will be essential to fostering a truly global recovery, advancing decent work and building a brighter future for all.

[1] Author’s own calculations based on labour force surveys.

[2] Author’s own calculations based on UN International Migration database.

Interested in learning more about the COVID-19 induced health and labour market crisis in LDCs and recommended policy responses? Read the latest ILO publication here.

This article is part of the Decent Jobs for Youth Blog Series: Youth Rights & Voices. The Blog Series highlights the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on young women and men in the world of work and discusses action-oriented policy responses and solutions. If you would like to comment or contribute, please contact decentjobsforyouth@ilo.org.


Adam Elsheikhi

Junior Technical Officer, Employment Policy Department, ILO

Year of publication

16 December 2020