A young woman is employed as a metal worker in Vietnam. Photo by: International Labor Organization / CC BY-NC-ND

On International Youth Day we celebrate young people — their courage, passion, optimism and their current and future contributions to our world. Today marks a day to reflect on what we have learned in the youth development community and where we are headed. One thing is for sure: It’s a young person’s world out there. There are currently about 1.8 billion people between the ages of 10 and 24. And they represent a tremendous opportunity for our planet.

As Market Systems Development and Making Markets Work for the Poor are now common approaches to alleviating poverty and economic inequity, we have to better understand how young people are engaging and thriving within these systems. It’s not as easy as taking an MSD or M4P lens and simply applying it to a youth population. Male and female youths have very unique constraints in accessing jobs, ensuring their voices are heard, gaining leadership positions, pursuing education and breaking through market barriers. We have to fully understand how young people play a role in any system — whether it’s a health system, education or a labor market.

So move over M4P, it’s really all about M4Y — Making Markets Work for Youth. With an emphasis on the “Y,” we have to look at the full picture to understand how to make market systems work efficiently and effectively for youths.

So what’s so different about making markets work for young people?

Here are five M4Y lessons Mercy Corps has learned along the way, especially when focused on labor markets:

1. Young people are the heart and soul of these systems. We must enable them to take the lead.

The median age in many countries around the world tells a compelling story: Yemen, 19; Uganda, 15; Niger, 15. Young people aren’t just part of the system; they are the system. We need to engage them as the catalysts that they are — as community leaders, entrepreneurs and employers. Development programs shouldn’t just serve them, but instead should engage, uplift and empower young people to lead. They must be at the center of our design and implementation and must be real decision-makers in our programs. When it comes to youth-led approaches, we can’t just afford to talk the talk: We have to walk the walk and make young people real partners in change.

2. The world of work is changing. So must our approaches.

Long gone are the days of a single-company resume where someone spends 30-plus years as a dedicated employee to just one employer. Whether you call it mixed livelihoods, poly-employment or portfolios of work, we know that young people are no longer seeking and are no longer reliant on one long-term job, but rather expect to pursue multiple, flexible income streams. Nor are these types of steady jobs always available. The world of work is changing and young people are often looking for diverse forms of income and short-term work options.

In Liberia, Mercy Corps’ PROSPECTS program has responded to these labor preferences and trends by ensuring that young people are not pigeonholed by a specific training course that builds skills in one area. For example, we can’t expect one vocational training course in welding to set a young person up for success for the rest of his or her life. Instead, we’re helping youths build transferable skills such as financial literacy and are enabling them to select personalized economic pathways specific to their individual interests. Sometimes this means training plus an apprenticeship. Sometimes this involves training and career counseling. Each young person should be empowered to chart his or her own path based on individualized needs and aspirations.

3. No local jobs? No problem. Virtual work can cross even the toughest borders.

Gaza has one of the highest youth unemployment rates in the world at 60 percent. Even though the education system is pumping out university graduates, job opportunities are few and far between. Young people are caught in limbo as they attempt to transition from school to work. Understanding that the job shortage is a significant constraint, Mercy Corps has sought creative solutions. Through a freelancing model (think virtual consulting), we have helped young people overcome local labor market barriers by taking on short-term work opportunities around the world. From their laptops, young Gazans are taking on jobs such as designing logos and translating medical texts with clients from Sydney to Los Angeles to Dubai. They are doing so from their homes, coworking spaces and internet cafes. No visa necessary.

4. We can’t ignore the role cultural and social norms play.

Skills are one piece of the employment equation. Jobs are another. Both of these supply and demand issues are critical in promoting employment and creating opportunities for the youth sector. However, there are a slew of other issues that impact labor market systems. For example, cultural and social norms can be the make-or-break factors in successful employment or self-employment.

In South Sudan we found that due to years of foreign aid, the dependency mentality of the youth sector was sometimes stronger than their earning mentality, and greatly hindered them in pursuing income-generating activities. In Yemen, nepotism and wasta (hiring “who you know”) is rampant and can thwart merit-based employment. So a young person can be perfectly groomed for the workforce, with the exact skills and requirements for a specific job, but it doesn’t mean that the employer wants to take a chance on an unknown individual outside of his or her networks. Jobs programs must understand the wide array of factors that influence labor market systems for young people and must take these cultural and social norms into account during design and implementation.

5. Start ‘em young and use different approaches for different ages.

While those 10-19 are legally not able to earn income in most contexts, we can prepare them for their eventual transition from school to work. Particularly for adolescent refugees and other young people who may be out of formal education systems, promoting transferable skills such as communication, leadership and time management is an effective way to keep young people positively engaged while also strengthening their ability to later transition to employment or self-employment. Think back to the days of home economics and the 4-H Club. For example, in Lebanon and Jordan, many adolescent Syrian refugees are too young to work and unable to re-enroll in formal education — and we recognize that many will never go back to school.

Investments in nonformal education can build important transferable skills that help them navigate their current environment, as well as combat the feelings of isolation many are experiencing. We’re focused on providing this nonformal learning so that adolescents can understand their current stresses, make good decisions and also be appropriately equipped to enter the workforce when the time is right.

So on International Youth Day, and every day, let’s focus beyond simply working with young people and designing programs with their needs in mind, but let’s endeavor to make their environments work more efficiently for them. It’s time to put young people in the lead and help them channel the incredible potential they have to create a brighter future for themselves, their communities and our world.

For more Devex coverage on the role of young people in global development, visit Focus On: Youth

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Tara Noronha

    Tara is youth employment adviser on the economic and market development team at Mercy Corps. With a focus on employment, entrepreneurship and market systems development, she supports Mercy Corps’ youth portfolio which spans more than 25 countries including Afghanistan, Yemen, Liberia, Uganda, Kenya, South Sudan and others. She earned her bachelor's degree from the University of Notre Dame and a master's degree in public administration, international development, from New York University.