With numbers like these, it makes sense that the United Nations – like it did with Earth Day for the environment in 1970 – established a day to increase awareness of this critical demographic. For it is the world’s youth, in this new century of unpredictability, who will determine what the future will look like.
But we know that youth today are striving for more. Whether demanding democracy and equality from their governments, or creating innovative tools to help the most vulnerable, they are working to drive positive change.
What can we do to help? The public, private, and social sectors are struggling with this critical question. There are no simple answers, but a few things are clear—we must scale up innovative approaches, and we must commit to a multi-stakeholder approach that includes young people as part of the solution. Luckily, there are some promising models to learn from in two areas that have been the most difficult to tackle – education and employment.
One promising model is the UN’s Global Education First initiative (GEFI), which aims to put every child in school, improve the quality of learning, and foster global citizenship. What makes it so innovative is that it brings together leading businesses—including Coca-Cola, Discovery, and Accenture—to work with governments in transforming education for millions of underserved children. It also uses the power and voice of young advocates from around the world, who are both leading advocacy efforts, as well as informing policy decisions.
We can’t talk about youth without mentioning their connection to technology. Technology is improving access to information, and can in the education space as well. One opportunity the international community should invest in is expanding access to massive open online courses (or MOOCs), which can deliver top-tier teaching to the computers of young people anywhere on the planet. With improved internet access, young people can learn from the same professors and books as their more-fortunate peers.
At the same time, we must move to where the audience will be—not where it has been for the past century. For instance, the State Department is experimenting with ways to get learning tools, such as English language training, on mobile devices to do just that. Indeed, in Africa—the largest concentration of young people on the planet—there are more mobile phone users than in the U.S. or the European Union. If Avatar can fit in your pocket, so should a computer science class.
Furthermore, just as we must innovate in our classrooms, we must seek innovation in our labor markets. From Europe to North Africa, youth unemployment is a key policy challenge for a country’s stability and prosperity, not just a sideline issue that can be addressed in the future. In the Middle East and North Africa alone, 75 million jobs will need to be created by 2020 in order to simply maintain current levels.
One innovation that can assist job creation is taking a multi-stakeholder approach. The private sector, education sector, and government at all levels, need to find ways to collaborate, each bringing their unique assets to the table.
Perhaps most importantly, there needs to be recognition of a “global skill-set” that places entrepreneurial thinking and technological capabilities at its core. Technological proficiency, which is now the common parlance when communicating globally, needs to be given priority around the world. Governments can be more proactive here by helping to connect young people to resources. Platforms that connect youth to their peers across the world, often for social reasons, can also be leveraged to connect them to assets such as mentor networks and employment opportunities.
There is no doubt that young people will have a prominent role in shaping a 21st century world, as they’ve already shown. Success for all of us will depend on whether they are able to realize their potential to be positive drivers of change.
Rahman is special adviser to the Secretary of State for Global Youth Issues and a fellow at the Truman National Security Project.