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Only 52 percent of the African population is between the ages of 15 and 64, the age range that is conventionally considered to be working age. About 45 percent are children under 15 years of age, while 3 percent are 65 years or older. Africa has the highest dependency ratio—the proportion of the total population that needs to be supported by the working-age group—of any continent. This does not mean that children under 15 years of age do not work. In rural areas, children, especially girls, start work at 5 or 6 years of age. The child labor pool is shrinking, however, as opportunities for universal elementary education expand.

Only a small portion of Africa's labor force—mainly males—has formal wage-paying jobs in the cities or in the mining and plantation sectors. Most of the labor force is employed in subsistence production in rural areas or in the informal sector of the urban economy. The latter often involves women and children, and includes petty trade and other urban services such as cleaning, repairs, manual labor, and handicrafts.

The lowest earnings come from the rural subsistence occupations, which generally require basic traditional skills. Rural cottage industry is usually more profitable, but these occupations require higher skill levels and typically necessitate long apprenticeships. During the colonial period, the creation of a small number of more lucrative jobs in mining or plantation agriculture caused subsistence occupations to lose their respectability as routes to well-being. Eventually they were stigmatized as 'primitive' by a growing number of young men, who went off to big cities in search of better-paying jobs.

Africa’s major cities remain magnets for the rural labor force, which perceives these areas as centers of opportunity. The rise in the number of rural-urban migrants has contributed to wild growth, high unemployment, and overextended social services in African cities. In most countries in Africa, the major cities drain most of the national resources for modernization, leaving little to be shared with the rural population. At the same time, the unrestrained rural-urban migration has grave consequences for the food-producing areas that are losing significant numbers of able-bodied workers to the cities.

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