In terms of population, the world stands at a crossroads. Despite declining fertility rates in many countries, more young people are alive today than ever before.
More than 40 percent of the global population is under the age of 25, which includes more than 700 million young people in the Asia-Pacific region alone. By 2050, Africa’s population is expected to double in size, with one-third of the global youth population living within sub-Saharan Africa.
These are more than just population statistics. This period in a person’s life is instrumental in preparing them for the future. But enhancing human development is only meaningful if people have the ability to make and exercise choices. Today’s youth may have the greatest access to information, technology and civic advocacy, but they also contend with high levels of unemployment, cyclical violence and marginalization.
Opportunity can quickly devolve into volatility without the support and outlets that help them succeed. Desperation and disenfranchisement have pushed some young people to join gangs and extremist organizations. They have forced others to flee their homes, crossing internal and external borders to pursue safety and stability.
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development reports that the risk of poverty has dramatically shifted from those over age 65 to those between the ages of 18 and 25. Despite being the most educated generation, more than 70 million young people across the world are unemployed. Millions more find themselves in precarious or informal work.
Higher education is seen as a key to success, but it is out of reach due to cost or biased social norms. Youth also see lack of access to education as a major driver of inequity.
If quality secondary and tertiary education remains the privilege of the wealthy and middle class, then that reality will maintain income disparities between the rich and the poor. For others in places like the Middle East and North Africa, the education they do have offers limited and mismatched skills to the needs of the market and their aspirations.
Adolescent health issues also require urgent attention. In South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, young people are two and four times more likely to die during youth, respectively, compared to more developed regions. Rates of obesity, suicide, depression, drug and tobacco use, and early sexual activity are increasingly affecting long-term well-being.
Unfortunately, the effect of these obstacles is magnified for adolescent girls and young women. Unemployment rates are higher for women than for men in every region of the world. That is often due to unequal social and cultural norms, the burden of domestic work and childcare, and lack of access to equal educational opportunities.
Girls also are almost two-and-a-half times more likely than boys to be out of school if they live in places of conflict. Young women are nearly 90 percent more likely to be out of secondary school than their counterparts in countries not affected by conflict.
Despite these challenges, young people remain an essential influence on long-term progress. That’s why we need to treat them as such. Greater public and private investment in programming that directly supports youth populations can have tremendous impact.
Involving youth in making important decisions is equally vital. Young people have something to say and their perspective matters, especially when it comes to increasing social inclusion and community resilience.
Sadly, youth participation in policy-making is often approached with indifference or complete exclusion. Public and private sector leaders must better ensure young people meaningfully contribute to key decision-making processes at local and national levels.
In places like Namibia, influencers such as first lady Monica Geingos have put a priority on engaging students and educators in advocacy and policymaking efforts. Her inclusive approach has opened lines of communication and representation and fortified progress on issues like HIV/AIDS, cyclical violence and education.
Greater attention also needs to be placed on preventing gender inequality worldwide, especially for young women and adolescent girls. Fortunately, programs like DREAMS (Determined, Resilient, Empowered, AIDS-free, Mentored and Safe) and Digital Citizen Fund are working to eliminate barriers that limit the potential and well-being of this important population.
As one example, DREAMS aims to reduce rates of HIV among adolescent girls and young women in the countries with the highest burden. This includes delivering holistic programming beyond health care, grounded in evidence-based approaches.
The Digital Citizen Fund likewise is removing physical and social barriers to support women and girls in emerging countries. Its goal is to help women and girls obtain the skills to succeed in the global marketplace.
From Millennials to Gen Z, young people represent a generation of limitless potential. As the innovators and influencers of tomorrow, they also emulate the opportunity we face today. We will all benefit by better helping young people have the support and access to thrive.