Franklin D. Roosevelt once said “we cannot always build the future for our youth, but we can build our youth for the future”. This sentiment was certainly relevant in the 1940s, in my opinion it rings even more true today, and perfectly captures the spirit of the International Youth Day. The global community may not be able to guarantee a perfect and rosy future, but they are capable of equipping young people with the tools, knowledge and experience to face these challenges themselves.
Every year on August 12, the United Nations and its member states observe International Youth Day, an occasion to celebrate the achievements of the world’s youth, and bring attention to the issues faced by this rapidly growing demographic. Which sounds great but I don’t think it’s clear how this day is actually meant to help anyone.
In fact, I feel like International Youth Day is more about paying lip-service to ‘youth issues’ than actually getting anything done.
Research has shown that countries with burgeoning youth populations are more susceptible to destabilizing forces, civil unrest, and conflict. When developing countries undergo the demographic transition, rising birth rates and falling death rates contribute to the emergence of a youth bulge within society. Having a large youth population can be a window of opportunity for economic growth and human development (see: the demographic dividend). But more often than not youth bulges are viewed in a negative light.
As we saw in Egypt, when a country fails to create opportunities for its young people (especially when they are trying to enter the work force), social and economic exclusion can fuel civil unrest, political protest, and even violent conflict.
Policy-makers are at a cross-road; find ways to incorporate youth, or suffer the consequences.
Youth make up approximately 1.8 billion people in the world today, and will inevitably have an enormous impact on shaping the world and its future. Finding new ways to engage, employ, and incorporate youth into society will be essential to realizing positive development outcomes around the world. These issues are not exclusive to developing countries. Low youth employment rates, disparities in education, rising inequality – sound familiar? We are facing these challenges in the West too.
While our experiences of economic exclusion may not be enough to culminate in a violent conflict, I can personally attest to feelings of hopelessness, neglect and disenchantment when searching for a job in my field. When millions of youth share this sentiment, it doesn’t exactly set the stage for growth, prosperity, or a golden age of human development.
So, what can be done? How can we engage youth so that they contribute towards a virtuous cycle of growth, stability, and development? While it’s certainly not rocket science, it will require a multi-sectoral approach with governments, the private sector, NGOs, and civil society working together and playing a role. Here are three simple strategies that I think would make a big difference:
Societies can become more inclusive by listening to youth, and providing channels for them to express their opinions and participate in public life. Luckily, we live in a hyper-connected world, and the prevalence of ICTs has opened the door to this consultative process. Young people have the right to participate in the decisions and structures which affect their lives, and governments should facilitate this.
When adults collaborate with youth, it is a win-win situation; young people gain practical experiences that can help to reinforce their role as active citizens, and adults learn how to look at old problems in new ways, gaining new insights through a youth perspective. Organizations should make more of an effort to facilitate internships, co-ops, and volunteer opportunities for youth. If they emphasize the benefits of getting involved and ensure that these positions are adequately broadcast, young people will capitalize on the opportunity.
Investing in youth not only brings rewards to the individual, but also to their family and their community at large. Building human capital through investing in youth education, skills training and health care must be the cornerstone of development efforts today and in the future. For me, one of the biggest benefits of investing in youth is enhanced self-confidence. When you have people investing in your future and supporting you every step of the way – the sky is the limit. It is in this type of environment where the entrepreneurial and innovative spirit takes root, and sets the stage for growth, stability, and development for years to come.