Did you know that nearly half of the world’s population is under 25 years old? If you’ve followed the emerging media coverage of this drastic demographic shift, your answer was probably yes. We aren’t short of articles touting the challenges of today’s growing youth population, but with each new story I read, I find myself asking the same question: why has the most important piece of the puzzle been left out?
Take, for instance, this boldly titled story by Somini Sengupta:The world has a problem: Too many young people. As the conversation on our “lopsided” demographics plays out, authors like Sengupta often use data to paint a picture of the millions of disenfranchised, out-of-work youth around the world. The statistics cited around the growing youth bulge, especially in developing nations, are striking and true. But these statistics only show readers a half truth.
Missing from the picture is the role of youth as agents of change — as problem solvers instead of problems to be solved. By focusing only on the strains this unprecedented cohort puts on society, we miss out on the immense potential of what’s possible if we shift our dialogue to see youth not as a bulge, but as the largestdemographic dividend.
“By and large, today’s global youth are more likely to be in school than their parents were; they are more connected to the world than any generation before them; and they are in turn more ambitious,” which, warns Sengupta, “also makes them more prone to getting fed up with what their elders have to offer.”
This potential for young people to become fed up is offered forebodingly as an indicator for social unrest. But for me, that sentence resonated a bit differently.
What more could society ask for than youth who are looking at our challenges with fresh eyes, willing to call out injustices and flawed systems?
Today’s youth are taking stock of existing systems and measuring the gap between where we are now and where they believe we should be. They are asking governments to be accountable. They want economic systems that work for everyone, not just some. Of course they react strongly to shortsighted policies that fundamentally affect the society and environment they will inherit. They want to be heard, valued and considered as partners in development, for they are the ones who will live with decisions made today.
What we need is not fewer youth, it’s more trust in the many that we have.
The value of youth as advocates not just for their own generation, but for all groups of marginalized people, should not be underestimated. There is a strong movement of young people who aren’t just visionaries, but pragmatic doers, and are recruiting a steady influx of peers to join them.
Take Deepa Gupta, the 27-year-old co-founder ofJhatkaa.org who has mobilized over 200,000 Indian citizens to hold government and corporate decision makers accountable on issues of public welfare.
Or Lina Useche, who at age 21 launchedAliança Empreendedora to inspire low-income Brazilians to pursue entrepreneurship. Today, the pioneering initiative has supported nearly 30,000 microentrepreneurs in 19 states across Brazil.
In Iraq, 26-year-oldAyaz Hassan is defying the odds as a young man working for women’s rights — creating safe spaces for women in Iraq’s Syrian refugee and Kurd communities to access training and resources related to legal rights, health and family wellbeing.
In every country, there are young people like Deepa, Lina and Ayaz. Some experience more enabling environments than others, but all face the challenges of driving change as a young person. They lack the credibility and trust necessary for securing meaningful investments. They’re operating in isolation without access to critical opportunities for peer learning. To their credit, they are generating notable grass-roots impact. But when connected to networks, mentors, skill-building opportunities, and funding, imagine how much further their work can go.
By supporting those who are channeling their frustration with the status quo in their communities and countries in a positive way, we are also developing role models for other young people. Our youth worldwide want to be part of the solution to the problems they lament. By connecting them with their peers who’ve already taken action, we show them that it’s possible.
I believe we’ll continue to see articles warning readers of the perils of the world’s youth population. While alarming, they are also important. They offer a sobering reminder of the very real repercussions of a society that does not invest in the potential of young people. It’s my hope, however, that the conversation shifts toward seeing youth as our greatest asset.
As millennials sense the dissonance between the systems of today and the future they envision, their pushback and efforts for change should be celebrated, not feared. Let’s put our trust and resources in them to solve the very problems some fear they will exacerbate.
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Lisa Jones is a program manager at the International Youth Foundation, where she works to build credibility and support for youth-led social change. As the 2011 recipient of the Sophie Kerr Prize, the nation’s largest undergraduate literary award, Lisa channels her storytelling instincts as an advocate for the work of young social entrepreneurs around the world.
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