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The Future Belongs to the Young

February 17, 2010


Antoine de Saint-Exupery (1900-1944), whose most famous work was The Little Prince, once wrote: “As for the future, your task is not to foresee it, but to enable it.” Enable it for whom? The answer, of course, is for the next generation and those that follow. The next 40 years, however, are especially critical because the global population is expected to increase by nearly 50 percent before it peaks. The Financial Times recently ran a series of articles about today’s young people and what we need to do to enable a better future for them. One of the articles notes that “young people in the developing world are coming of age in greater numbers than ever before” [“Opinion: Seizing opportunity now will make the world fairer and safer,” by Justin Yifu Lin and Wendy Cunningham, 29 January 2010]. Lin, who is chief economist and senior vice-president, development economics at the World Bank, and Cunningham, who is coordinator of the World Bank’s Children and Youth Program, assert that a window of opportunity exists that will make or break the future depending on what the world does. They write:

“A recent World Development Report that focused on youth strongly suggested that countries need to seize this window of opportunity to invest. Yet for many young people, the financial crisis has meant even fewer life options and falling spirits. Many are struggling to finish school or find jobs in pursuit of a more promising life. In the best of times, young people are three times more likely to be unemployed than adults. Even before the financial crisis struck, developing countries needed to create 1bn jobs over the next decade just to keep up with a new wave of first-time job seekers. Because of the crisis, job creation is an even more challenging task. As a world community we simply cannot afford to abandon these young people to the ups and downs of the global economy. By nature, they yearn to realize their full potential, earn a living wage, save for marriage, a home, and above all, take their rightful place in society.”

One of the problems, Lin and Cunningham insist, is that decision makers, when considering how to help young people, think in terms of the future instead of realizing that the future begins with the here-and-now. They continue:

“Too often we regard our young men and women as the workers, entrepreneurs, parents, citizens and leaders of tomorrow. In fact, they are today’s citizens and we must recognize their potential to make extraordinary changes to the world around us. Addressing young people’s needs and aspirations is vital for both social and economic progress. Either we do nothing – and risk alienating them from the mainstream and instilling in them a legacy of distrust and hopelessness – or we invest in the biggest source of human potential that the world has ever had, and reap the benefits of that investment through greater growth and social well-being for generations to come.”

If nothing is done to enable a better future for those coming of age, the Great Recession runs the risk of creating the Great Repression. Lin and Cunningham explain:

“The current crisis poses risks for our collective future. A recent British Council report on the young people of Pakistan predicts a ‘demographic disaster’ if that country does not address the needs of its young generation. More than 70 per cent of Pakistani youth reported being worse off financially than a year earlier. Pakistan is not alone. World Bank analysis shows that child and youth poverty in some eastern European countries has increased by 5 per cent to 10 per cent over the past year. Across the world, young people’s hopelessness in the face of the crisis is reflected by dropping out of the labour force altogether at three times the rates of adults. Even more troubling is the growing level of despair among youth that reflects disillusionment not only with their governments but with democracy itself.”

The terrorist attacks that continue to grab headlines underscore the fact that it is hopelessness and disillusionment, even more than poverty, that drives young people to desperate and despicable actions. Young people need a stake in the future so that they can cling to hope. Lin and Cunningham insist that the depressing data presented above doesn’t have to define the future. They write:

“We have seen time and again how countries that invest in their young men and women end up with more economic growth and social cohesion. Governments that encourage their students to stay in school see significant national returns on each additional year of schooling. This is especially true when countries invest in educating their adolescent girls to secondary school level and beyond. Governments and private companies can also finance and expand effective job-training programs which can groom young people for the demands of a global economy that requires more and more highly skilled workers. For example, in the Dominican Republic’s Juventud y Empleo project, comprehensive job-training has bumped up young people’s salaries by as much as 10 per cent. The returns on the investment in the young beneficiaries are expected to exceed the program costs within two years of their graduation. Such returns are observed across Latin America. The current crisis has spurred governments to work more intensively with the international donor community, NGOs and corporate sponsors to champion new models of youth employment programs that focus on a more comprehensive market-driven approach – with relevant job and life skills training, internships, and job placement opportunities. The World Bank is mobilizing around this issue as well – having joined forces with the Nike Foundation to set up an Adolescent Girls Initiative to pioneer employment projects for girls in Liberia, Rwanda, South Sudan, Afghanistan, and Nepal. The Bank is also preparing three youth development programs in Kenya, El Salvador, and Papua New Guinea, in addition to others in the Dominican Republic and Honduras, reflecting a sense of urgency and recognition that young people can play a significant role in reducing poverty and spurring economic growth. And the Bank is working in partnership with the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) Youth Employment Network, with leading NGOs, including the International Youth Foundation and with the overall donor community to develop a body of knowledge on effective youth employment interventions that will succeed even after the crisis has subsided.”

New York Times‘ op-ed columnist Nicholas Kristof reports that one country that has invested in its youth has seen economic benefits as well as something even more precious — increased happiness [“The Happiest People,” 7 January 2010]. That country is Costa Rica. Kristof reports:

“Increased schooling created a more stable society, less prone to the conflicts that have raged elsewhere in Central America. Education also boosted the economy, enabling the country to become a major exporter of computer chips and improving English-language skills so as to attract American eco-tourists. … In Costa Rica, rising education levels also fostered impressive gender equality so that it ranks higher than the United States in the World Economic Forum. This allows Costa Rica to use its female population more productively than is true in most of the region. Likewise, education nurtured improvements in health care, with life expectancy now about the same as in the United States — a bit longer in some data sets, a bit shorter in others.”

Kristof notes that Costa Rica is “arguably the happiest nation on earth” and I would argue that happiness is a byproduct of hope. Lin and Cunningham conclude:

“To be sure, it will take time for countries to get back into the global economy, to restore their confidence in trade and investment, in creating jobs, and other measures of economic vitality. But we cannot wait until the crisis ends to pay serious attention to the plight of today’s young people. Consider that they now constitute the largest youth cohort in human history – more than 1bn people between the ages of 15 and 25 – with the vast majority of them growing up in developing countries. Sub-Saharan Africa, according to the US-based Population Reference Bureau, is home to the world’s largest population of young people and is projected to stay this way for decades. If we do nothing to address these issues, the consequences will be severe. According to a recent World Bank study of Latin America and the Caribbean, underinvestment in youth costs countries as much as 2 per cent of their GDP every year, even at the best of times, and the situation is getting worse. As a result, fewer young people will be able to contribute to the economic growth that will help fuel a more widespread, stable global recovery, and more will eventually lose hope in themselves and in a vision for a better world. Now is the time for governments and donors to act. Given their sheer number in a world beset with poverty and its related tribulations, we need to empower young people to take charge of their own lives and discover their full potential. Whether they succeed has everything to do with whether we succeed as a world, and as a society. But they cannot do so alone.”

The American humorist Dave Barry once wrote, “I care about our young people, and I wish them great success, because they are our Hope for the Future, and some day, when my generation retires, they will have to pay us trillions of dollars in social security.” In addition to the legacy of a large national debt, Americans should provide a legacy of hope by investing in today’s youth. The same holds true for other countries as well, especially in the developing world. In a future post, I’ll examine some of the other articles published in the Financial Times special report on world’s youth.

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