February 13, 2013

Commentary: Overcoming the twin challenges of youth unemployment and food insecurity: what role for agricultural employment?

By Dr. Jennifer Leavy

Dr. Jennifer Leavy is a researcher at the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex, UK.

In the contemporary context of profound and significant global change, youth unemployment levels have hit historic highs (ILO, 2012a,b,c; OECD, 2012)[1], and despite improved undernourishment estimates in the two decades to 2007, one in eight people suffered chronic undernourishment in 2010-2012 - one in four in sub-Saharan Africa - according to the recent United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) State of food insecurity and hunger in the world  report (2012).

Add to the twin challenges of youth unemployment and hunger and food insecurity, an apparent ageing of the farm population – the average age of farmers is now in the range of late-50s to early 60s across the globe from The United States to Europe, to Africa, to Australia.On the surface the answer seems simple enough: encourage young people to farm and we solve three ‘problems’ in one fell swoop.

Agriculture will provide under- and un-employed young people with employment and income, this in turn will provide the food we need via increased production, and ensures farming is passed from one generation to the next. This message adds yet another  framing of young people as the saviours of undernutrition to the many other framings and narratives that place young people in the role of saviours (of the agriculture sector) or ‘sinners’ (young people are too lazy for agriculture, idle, unemployed)[2].

It seems obvious – if more than a little instrumentalist in approach. Of course the answer is not as simple as that.

Strong messages emerging from primary research with young people in rural areas under the Life in a Time of Food Price Volatility project – a four-year study across ten developing countries - and from the Future Agricultures Consortium  youth theme, focusing on young people and agricultural policy processes in sub-Saharan Africa, shed light on young people’s attitudes towards agriculture and the likelihood of being able to address food security concerns via engagement of young people with the sector.  Some of these attitudes include:

  • Most young people have no interest in agriculture, not within their own visions for their future. This is often echoed by their parents. By agriculture, people invariably think of farming: back-breaking work, low input, 365 days a year for little or low return. Those who do see a future for themselves in farming believe it needs to be ‘smarter’, more productive and more reliable. More modern?
  • Agriculture is not considered to be delivering the types of lifestyles and status that young people desire and expect. These are important dimensions of the attractiveness, or otherwise, of agriculture (invariably farming) as an occupation. Agriculture is not considered able to deliver via incomes and working conditions the kinds of lifestyles young people need, expect and desire in the 21st century, lifestyles that are ever more visible thanks to revolutionary advances in communications technology that is accessible to (almost) all, even people living in the most remote rural areas. In this respect, agriculture is regarded as a poor person’s activity, going beyond living standards to people’s sense of pride and self-respect. These are important dimensions of wellbeing[3] and take us beyond narrow, one-dimensional conceptions of what it means to be poor, marginalised and disadvantaged. If agriculture is not able to deliver either the desired living standards or the prospects for upward mobility, then the likelihood of attracting young people into or retaining them in the sector is low.
  • Education is a double-edged sword. Higher education levels overall mean that young people are being educated kinds of agriculture on offer. With higher levels of education they seek jobs with higher skill levels than those of the smallholder farming activities that most face. But higher unemployment levels, especially among the youth, suggest that work and education are failing as key routes by which people move out of poverty, and as crucial mechanisms linking economic growth to poverty reduction. More children than ever go to school, but what they learn appears to be far removed from the skills needed in the 21st century (UNESCO, 2012; World Bank, 2012). This is as much true for agriculture sector skills as any other.
  • Agriculture is often seen as a last resort, something you do if you fail: in school,  as migrants in town or abroad, in non-farm businesses. Or may not even be an option at all – pressure on resources, especially land scarcity, pose serious barriers to entry for young people. This is highlighted sharply by Getnet Tadele and Asrat Ayalew Gella’s work in Ethiopia, and is not peculiar to this setting. This is a recurring theme across the ten countries in the Life in a Time of Food Price Volatility project. An apparent sense of insecurity around farming, related to unpredictable climate variability, volatile food prices, rising costs, further acts as a deterrent.

These emergent findings suggest policymakers need to think beyond the conception of (young) people as units of labour to be placed in jobs. To engage and empower young people in agriculture, the sector needs to be able to address young people’s aspirations and their expectations, and offer potential for social mobility. Using the language of the International Labour Organization (ILO) and FAO, rural employment needs to be ‘decent work’[4] – but as the importance to people of self-respect and status highlights, it needs also to address broader conceptions of human wellbeing. Farming needs a change of image to get over entrenched, though not unfounded, beliefs that it involves dirty, laborious work at low skill levels for low returns. And we need to reassess what we mean by ‘farmer’ in the 21st century. The broader agri-food framing called for by the Future Agricultures Consortium can go some way towards this, potentially recasting agriculture as an aspirational career choice by highlighting opportunities throughout the industry.

Dr. Jennifer Leavy is a researcher at the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex, UK. She co-convenes the Young People and Agri-Food theme of the Future Agricultures Consortium. Her main research interests focus on the intersection of social, cultural and economic life in the context of poverty, inequality and vulnerability, with a strong interest in social mobility and exits out of poverty. Jennifer’s research encompasses: social mobility; youth; employment; social networks; risk, vulnerability and poverty; social protection; livelihoods and rural development. She has a PhD in Economics from the University of Sussex and an MSc in Agricultural Economics from Imperial College, London (Wye). Follow Jennifer Leavy and Future Agriculture consortiums on twitter.


[1] ILO (2012a) Global Employment Trends for Youth Report. Rome: ILO

ILO (2012b) Global Employment Trends. http://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/---dgreports/---dcomm/---publ/documents/publication/wcms_171571.pdf

ILO (2012c) Global Employment Outlook September 2012: Bleak Labour Market Prospects for Youth. Rome: ILO

OECD (2012) African Economic Outlook. Paris: OECD.

[2] Anyidoho, Nana Akua , Happy Kayuni, John Ndungu, Jennifer Leavy, Mohamadou Sall, Getnet Tadele and James Sumberg “Young People and Policy Narratives in sub-Saharan Africa”. A Synthesis Paper.  Future Agricultures Consortium Working Paper032. IDS: Brighton. http://www.future-agricultures.org/component/docman/doc_details/1545-you...

[3] Gough, I, McGregor, A. 2007. Wellbeing in Developing Countries: from theory to research. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. http://ebooks.cambridge.org/ebook.jsf?bid=CBO9780511488986

[4] (FAO, 2012) Decent rural employment for food security: A case for action. http://www.fao.org/docrep/015/i2750e/i2750e00.pdf


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