Giving global youth the opportunity to shine

February 25, 2013 By Zach Silberman

A year before she retired as Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton told a town hall crowd in Tunisia that, “the world ignores youth at its peril.” And she wasn’t kidding around. In a world with 7 billion people, 3 billion of them are under the age of 30. This result is a global “youth bulge,” but, if you dig a little deeper, you’ll find that this trend really bulges in developing countries, which are home to around 90% of the world’s young people. Take the 90% and combine it with the fact that over 120 million adolescents enter the labor market year, and then factor in the global economic crisis and you’ve got what the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) calls a “double whammy.”

This is because we can expect over a billion new people entering the workforce from 2012 to 2020, which could intensify the problem of youth unemployment all over the world and in some seriously, volatile areas. Take for example, Egypt, the most populous Arab country that has nearly two-thirds of its population under the age of 30 and an estimated youth unemployment rate of 25%. But in the challenge of this expanding demographic, there are opportunities, and progress is being made.

Responding to this bulging trend the State Department created the Office of Global Youth Issues, one of Secretary Clinton’s legacies. In addition, USAID launched a policy directive to recognize the youth population “as a driving force in global development,” the first of its kind.  And even though “harnessing this demographic opportunity is not inevitable,” said Administrator Rajiv Shah, it can be achieved but “will require strategic, results‐oriented investments in youth today.”

Here’s the tricky part: youth contribute to their country’s economic prosperity and democracy, but they are also among the first to feel an economic squeeze, which can in turn, disrupt the democratic processes. By elevating the youth bulge into its development efforts, USAID aims “not only advance youth development and empowerment,” said USAID Administrator Raj Shah, but “also help nations accelerate economic growth and capture a demographic dividend.”

This issue is also gaining traction outside of government and all across business, NGO, and philanthropy communities. In fact, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) recently launched a new program, Youth, Prosperity and Security Initiative, to elevate the importance of ensuring development programs reach the global youth population.  At the rollout of the Initiative, one of the panelists from Hilton Worldwide spoke about how the hotel giant collaborated with the International Youth Foundation (IYF)—which works to empower the global youth population—on a white paper to promote opportunities for youth employment in the hospitality industry.

As Secretary Kerry travels for the first time as America’s top diplomat, he will undoubtedly see the challenges that the youth bulge poses, but also, hopefully, the possibilities of this next generation. According to IYF, in order to “create a more prosperous and peaceful society, we need young people who are prepared for jobs in the 21st century, who have the resilience to keep going when times are tough, who feel free to voice their opinions and ideas, and who can lead positive change in their communities.”

Today’s youth have the potential to lead us into the future, so let’s give them the opportunities to shine.