As children, we are told to 'dream big'. We are told that hard work gets you to the top and that by doing so, you can lead a successful and happy life. Indeed, social mobility amongst young men and women have increased during the latter half of the twentieth century, allowing a larger portion of the population to participate in economic, political and intellectual life. Today, we have the largest generation of young people the world has ever seen. 20% of the world population -- that is one in five people -- are between the ages 15 and 24. Their experiences differ from that of previous generations where life is less embroiled by the plagues of global warfare.
The current period, however, is characterised by a contradiction. Globalisation has not only reinforced the bifurcation of East and West but also their convergence where a minority of well-endowed elites reap the majority of the benefits. In this process, inequality becomes more apparent, creating a vicious cycle of disadvantage for the world's young people -- 85% of which live in developing countries. Of that 85%, more than 600 million live in vulnerable, conflict-ridden conditions. Likewise, 37% of young people capture the global working-age population with 60 percent making up the overall unemployed, according to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP).
On the other hand, young men and women are seen as promising engines for future growth. Less risk averse than their parents and hyper aware of the changes happening around them, the youth have the potential to generate more creative and sustainable ways of living. In fact, they are having more of a say than ever before. In 2015, the United Nations launched My World, a global survey which puts to the fore six issues that make the most difference to individuals. More than half of the 1.6 million of those who participated were below the age of 30, listing better education, better healthcare and better job opportunities as their top three priorities. This duality in the youth demographic, where they are both a cause of concern and a positive force for change, epitomises the complexity that young people have to weave through. This makes evident the archaic institutions which are yet to recognise the prejudices of an age-based meritocracy. Likewise, it highlights the importance of civic engagement where the needs of young people are considered in political negotiations.
They say that history tends to repeat itself and those who do not learn from it are doomed to repeat it. But how can a population that has done little to invest in human development make such decisive choices in a short period of time? It is common sense that states should increase their efforts in empowering their youth. After all, the empowerment of individual nations is ultimately beneficial for the world at-large. The Human Development Index (HDI) is a summary measure of three key dimensions in human development, namely living a long and healthy life (life expectancy), being knowledgeable (expected years of schooling and mean years of schooling) and having a decent standard of living (gross national income per capita). Between 1990 and 2015, the world average annual HDI growth rate increased by 75% suggesting that global quality of life has improved in the past decade. Despite this, however, the old notion that states and markets are the primary agents of change still remain intact as countries take for granted grassroots movements and their ability to make a difference in more local communities. A focus on human over capital development will not only strengthen such communities but also improve the conditions for social inclusion, poverty reduction and capacity building.
Initiatives which seek to achieve this include Upshift, a social impact workshop established by UNICEF for marginalised young people between the ages 14 and 24. Started in Kosovo in 2014, Upshift bridges the gap between the untouched potential of youth and impactful projects through grants, mentorship programmes and leadership training. These projects have ranged from creating awareness on optical health to developing training courses to support disabled people in using public transport. In Kosovo, a young group is looking to bridge a dialogue between Serbian and Albanian communities through English-learning classes. In Vietnam, students are developing a job search website for the visually impaired. In today's knowledge economy, such enterprises are important for youth empowerment where entrepreneurial skills will prove to be a valuable asset. To Layla Yarjani, the gap for such skills are huge and those with limited access to education are on the losing end. Layla is the Director of Operations at Little Bridge, a global online platform for young children learning English with a reach of over 100 countries. She is also the founding chair of NEXTGen London, a group of young professionals, aged 21 to 40, committed to supporting UNICEF initiatives through a series of creative events and collaborations.
"Traditional education is focused on content that may no longer be relevant," she says, "What we know is that children need certain basic skills -- financial literacy, entrepreneurship, language and communication, digital and technology skills, to list a few -- coupled with certain emotional attributes. Today, the world isn't thinking about education in this way." One of the most recognised criticisms in today's education system is the need to integrate skills which are fit for 21st-century life. Redefining the global standard for education, which addresses this problem, is much needed. "Programmes like Upshift teach young adults to be proactive and resilient in pursuing their dreams," Layla adds, "From what we have seen, this programme is a great start to building those vital skills. The gap remains and is one each community must address head on."
We are living in an age of information. The force of ideas, like battleships, possess the power to change paradigms. Growing up in this kind of environment can be intimidating and it is important that young people have the skills necessary to take charge of themselves. They should not be afraid of making their own decisions, of possessing self-control, of having a positive sense of themselves. It is through this empowerment that the youth can be of great service to the world. "Youth empowerment coupled with tangible opportunities and the emotional frameworks required to lead a happy life can have a huge impact on long-term social development," Layla remarks, "I think we will see more value created by developing countries and more meaningful solving of social problems if youth in developing parts of the world are at the forefront." Indeed, such reform not only requires the practical skills to materialise ideas but also the emotional strength to navigate one's own personal life. "We know that the best problem solving happens with the user at the heart of the process if those experiencing the problems themselves are forging the way," Layla observes, "Just imagine the possibilities."
Disclaimer: This article represents the views of the author and not UNICEF or NEXTGen London.
Sai is raising funds for Unicef UK and NEXTGen London as part of her entry to RideLondon where she will be cycling a 46-kilometer route from London to Surrey. To find out more about her fundraiser, click here.