At age 74, the UN wants to be young again

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres addresses staff during the celebration of UN staff Day. Photo by: Eskinder Debebe / U.N.

UNITED NATIONS — Daniela Bas, a director at the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, launched her U.N. career in 1986 as a junior program officer. She was 25 years old and surrounded by “many middle-aged men,” she said.

“It was really tough,” Bas shared during a UN Women forum on youth and equality on Monday in New York. “I wish I had the possibility to be sitting here, to have access to the space the U.N. is giving nowadays to the voices of young people.”

Under the leadership of U.N. chief António Guterres, the organization is increasingly recognizing its shortcomings in recruiting and retaining young people, and various efforts are underway to make the global body more attractive to young talent.

Guterres launched the youth strategy in September 2018 and appointed 28-year-old Jayathma Wickramanayake as the first envoy on youth. Wickramanayake is tasked with promoting leadership among young people — the definition of which is not strictly outlined in the strategy in order to allow for multiple interpretations — inside and outside of the U.N. system.

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The U.N. Development Programme is one agency currently revamping its human resources and hiring practices to attract and retain more talent. And Young U.N.: Agents for Change, a network for staff, contractors, and interns, has gained traction in the last few years, growing from about 20 members in 2016 to about 1,350 members today, according to Ruth Blackshaw, the Young U.N. network enabler at U.N. Geneva.

But data on junior staff retention and U.N. staff rankings indicate that the organization still largely lacks a modern, flexible environment that supports junior staffers in advancing their careers.

A reported 57.5% of junior staff working for the U.N. said they are considering leaving the organization, and 72% of those planning to leave reported they would do so in the next two years, according to a 2019 Young U.N. internal survey findings presented at the Monday forum on the UN Women “Generation Equality” initiative. The survey results were compiled from 689 respondents across the U.N. system.

“If we need three, or five, or 10 years to enter into a job at the U.N., then how do we expect 25-year-olds to have decision-making positions within this organization?” youth envoy Wickramanayake said during the UN Women forum. “Definitely there needs to be something done in terms of our recruitment practices in order to attract younger staff to work for this organization.”

Gender parity within the U.N. system, meanwhile, remains patchwork, as the prevalence of women staffers drops from entry to middle-management positions. Women make up 63% of entry-level positions, at the base “P-1” level. These positions are staffed on average by 33-year-olds. And women make up only 34% of senior, or “D-2,” positions, according to Minna Nurminen, a gender parity analyst at UN Women. Guterres achieved gender parity at senior management levels in 2018 through direct appointments.

‘I realized I was going to be stuck there forever’

Short-term work contracts and slow professional advancement opportunities are among the reasons some junior staffers are looking beyond the U.N., according to several current and former U.N. employees.

“The number one issue is the contract situation. It is hard to build a family life and have a career when you are in an insecure contract situation,” said Nanayaa Kumi, a Young U.N. member and recruitment manager at UNICEF in Copenhagen. “For those of us that are in the U.N., we see people leaving all the time.”

Kumi, who said she is “not going in with rose-tinted glasses anymore,” entered the U.N. through the junior professional officers' program in 2017, and briefly left the organization before rejoining in June 2019.

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A conservative U.N. workplace culture is another issue, especially for people who are considering becoming parents and want to have flexible work-from-home policies as well as equal time off for parental leave.

While several U.N. agencies have recently expanded their parental leave policies, no agency provides equal leave to all parents, regardless of sex, gender, or family configuration, according to Hyung Hak “Alfonso” Nam, president of UN-GLOBE, an organization that advocates for equality and inclusiveness for LGBTI people.

UN-GLOBE is advocating for equal parental leave and challenging other conservative norms within the U.N. The organization wants the U.N. to allow staff to choose their own email names, for example. The current system only permits legal names and can pose a problem for people who identify as transgender or queer and prefer other names, Nam explained.

Nam said he has spoken with transgender employees who come from countries with regressive LGBTI policies and idealized working for the U.N. The reality is not quite as they imagined it: “A lot of them find themselves disappointed. Maybe a bit less so now, because we are pushing for greater awareness of these issues,” he said.

For one former U.N. staffer, a slow and unclear career path factored into the decision to join the private sector.

“Once I reached P-3, I realized I was going to be stuck there forever. Some of my colleagues at the secretariat have been 17 years, 20 years at P-3, and never moved from New York to other places and were for many years doing the same job,” the former staffer, who wished to be anonymous, explained. “That is not encouraging and something you find attractive.”

Providing solutions

Conducting staff surveys and “temperature checks” on U.N. reform and young talent drain is one of the ways Young U.N. is working to understand and represent the concerns of junior employees. The network has worked closely with Jens Wandel, U.N. special adviser on reforms, on this work, at his request. They are now analyzing a second survey on the future of the U.N. workforce to help inform senior management discussions.  

Young U.N. members say their work is not just about age; it is about reforming the U.N. workplace to match the principles the organization promotes worldwide.

“Young U.N. is not trying to underline problems. We see shortcomings and try to provide solutions,” said Michaela Markova, a Young U.N. member.

Young U.N. has piloted ideas including new co-working spaces in Geneva, Switzerland and Beirut, Lebanon and “SDG Anonymous,” an online platform where people can share unsustainable behaviors they or their organization practice. The network has also consulted with top U.N. officials, including Wickramanayake, on how managers can better engage with young people, for example.

“There are a lot of junior people working for the U.N. who are very passionate and have lots of things to bring, but when you are one young junior person, it can be hard to bring new ideas,” Blackshaw told Devex.  

U.N. employees in the Young U.N. network have the chance to serve as “an agent for change,” and bring their own ideas to the top of the organization, according to Blackshaw.

“When we first started, we thought, 'How can we influence change in a complex system like the U.N.?' One is to start a conversation. Second, is to lead by example. Third, we advocate change and that is where we came as a collective voice across the world,” Blackshaw continued.  

Cultural workplace changes that Bas said she wished had arrived sooner, like open conversations around gender parity and youth engagement, are now underway. But more work is needed, according to Wickramanayake. She spoke of how she herself has been questioned when entering the Secretary-General’s office. In another incident, a minister Wickramanayake was waiting to meet asked her, “Where is the envoy?”

“The attitude is that the envoy would be a man, would probably be someone older, and would probably not have the same skin color I do,” Wickramanayake recalled.

“We often look at younger staff… as those who are training to be adults or as those who lack experience,” Wickramanayake said. “But what we really need to do is change that attitude, change that misconception and recognize the agency, the power, and the leadership that younger staff and young people bring to this organization.”