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Youth at the crossroads: A generation with untapped potential

Youth at the crossroads: A generation with untapped potential

Today is International Youth Day, a good time to pause and reflect on the state of the world’s youth and how the high level of global youth unemployment has become a critical development issue. And also, on how we are capable of working together – governments, civil society and the private sector – to help youth gain the skills and assets they need to gain access to changing labour markets and to make informed work and life choices.

An extraordinary untapped generation

Today’s youth are extraordinary in many ways. They are the largest cohort of young people to ever live on the planet: there are 1.2 billion youth between the ages of 15-24 alive today. Many countries are experiencing a demographic bulge of their youth population, which can present a number of challenges to society – the first being on the jobs front. The demand to create new jobs can be overwhelming.

Youth population infographic.
All images were created by the author’s colleagues at World Vision Youth.

Most countries will end up with large populations of young people unable to find work. Already, today’s youth make up 17 percent of the world’s population, but 40 percent of its unemployed population. Across Africa, it is 80 percent. It is estimated that 621 million youth – that’s half of all youth in the world – are out of school, unemployed and not in training. Critically, 87 percent of the world’s youth live in developing countries that typically struggle to provide adequate social safety nets.

An education crisis

One key driver of youth unemployment is lack of education and literacy. Far too many children and youth are unable to either access or complete their basic education. About 120 million children of primary and lower secondary school age are not in school, and another 200 million youth dropped out before completing primary school. Taken together, these alarming statistics mean that one in 5 young people have not completed their elementary education.

Education infographic.

Youth at a crossroads

Today’s youth should be tomorrow’s civic, political, spiritual and economic leaders, the heads of new households and drivers of economic growth and community renewal. Youth have energy, enthusiasm and a strong desire to find their identity and place in the world. However, many are not adequately prepared for these roles and have too few opportunities and too little support to gain the skills required. If these opportunities are not provided, what remains are largely negative or destructive pathways to identity and economic participation. There is risk in ignoring the youth population.

The image of youth at a crossroads represents this duel potential: a future where youth are supported and provided opportunities to gain the skills needed to participate positively and constructively in economic and social life, or a future defined by the increasing costs of a generation defined by a skills gap and left unprepared for their future. These costs include:

  • Negative self-identity, decreased social capital, increased depression and suicide
  • Economic nomadism, unaccompanied youth migration and trafficking
  • Increased participation in dangerous, degrading and illicit work
  • Increased risky behaviour like drug and alcohol abuse, unprotected sex and criminal activity
  • Increased recruitment into violent gangs and extremist movements

Rebel movements infographic.

Youth viability and the skills gap

Youth viability is a term I have us using at World Vision to frame a set of ways to invest in the successful and safe transition of children into adults that are engaged and active economic citizens. It has five parts:

  • Basic skills – including functional literacy, financial literacy and digital literacy
  • Life skills – including those related to social emotional intelligence and work-readiness
  • Technical and vocational skills – along with professional competencies that provide youth with marketable productive capacity for employment or entrepreneurship
  • Access to capital – including savings, microloans, seed money and business start-up kits
  • Relational support – including family and peer support, adult mentors and business coaches

Viability infographic.

These are the five critical areas where governments, the private sector and civil society can partner to invest in improved youth employment outcomes.

As we commemorate International Youth Day, I want to highlight the need to close the skills gap by focusing on providing youth access to alternative pathways to skills acquisition in contexts with high rates of early dropout. Offering informal, second-chance learning for basic skills like literacy and life skills development, and work-based training to further develop both soft skills and technical and vocational skills, can help out-of-school youth close the skills gap and be prepared to participate and contribute positively in their communities’ economic growth and political, civic and social development.

For more information on this topic, check out Aaron’s video on youth unemployment and World Vision International’s Youth Ready Curriculum.

A longer version of this article was published at the author’s blog, Staying for Tea, last month on World Youth Skills Day. It includes additional data and footnotes. 

Featured image shows a youth farmer. Photo provided by World Vision.

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Aaron Ausland is the Youth Viability and Livelihood Senior Specialist at World Vision International. He is also President of the Krista Foundation for Global Citizenship, an Adjunct Professor at Northwest University, a sought after public speaker and a somewhat unreliable blogger at Staying for Tea. He has been working in the global development field for 17 years in nearly 40 countries, and and holds a B.A. in International Political Economy and an MPA/ID from Harvard Kennedy School.

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