Amidst world population reaching seven billion
and last year’s Arab Spring, which in some nations is continuing into this winter, it can be easy to miss emerging pieces of research that tell us something relatively objective about youth and instability. Three new studies give practitioners and policymakers a stronger foundation of evidence to highlight the challenges and opportunities facing the world’s largest generation of young people
Results of a recent UNICEF staff survey indicate that the people responsible for the UN’s efforts targeting children and youth are seriously concerned about demographic and economic dynamics. Asked to review a list of 20 “global trends,” UNICEF staff rated “growing disparities” and “youth bulge and youth unemployment” as the most significant to children. The results, which the agency will soon publish in a paper on “The Next Generation and Global Trends,” also indicate that staff members feel that UNICEF has a strong capacity to influence the future of these trends.
UNICEF’s recent “Child Outlook” report on global trends discusses the issues highlighted in the survey. The report notes that although many countries are moving toward middle-income status, poverty rates remain stubbornly high, indicating that economic development does not benefit all equally. Income and consumption in such countries tend to be concentrated among the wealthiest households. “While many families will prosper, others are being left behind,” the report explains.
“Tensions and discouragement arising from youth unemployment, combined with higher food prices and fiscal contractions, may have contributed to increased civil unrest, protests, and political instability,” UNICEF asserts. In many developing countries, the number of young people entering the labor market far surpasses the number of available jobs. Although some youth are not working because they are enrolled in secondary or tertiary education, low rates of youth participation in the workforce often are not a matter of choice. Young people, especially those with low levels of education and from poorer families, are often unable to find secure, decent jobs. More than one-quarter of all young people with jobs worldwide live below the poverty line of $1.25 per day.
Economic Pressures on Youth in East Africa
Two other research projects – one published, one still underway – provide additional context to the combination of demographic and economic challenges that face the world’s young people. In the first, part of a recent special U.S. Institute of Peace series on South Sudan, Stephanie Schwartz and Wilson Center fellow Marc Sommers probe the expectations of and obstacles faced by youth in the newly created country.
According to the incipient government’s statistics agency, 72 percent of South Sudan’s population is younger than 30, which places it among the 20 youngest age structures in the world. Only 40 percent of youth ages 15 to 24 are literate, and nearly 80 percent of households depend on agriculture for their income. Based on interviews conducted with urban and rural youth in three areas of South Sudan, the authors find that the pressure of paying rising dowry costs is the most salient issue facing young men, while young women are treated as economic assets with no influence in their own future. The authors’ research suggests that “some young men join armed gangs, at least in part, because they believe it will help them pay dowries.”
Although many young people in South Sudan aspire to the stability of government work, the limited number of jobs and shortage of relevant skills inhibit their aspirations. With an underdeveloped private sector, few opportunities for training, and nepotistic practices in hiring, there is little work for those living in towns and urban areas beyond manual labor and selling goods. The authors recommend that education and job training be expanded, with a focus on equitable access among young people from varied geographic backgrounds.
Across the border in northern Uganda, Chris Blattman, an associate professor of political science at Yale, has been studying the social effects of the government’s youth employment program started in 2007. The program offered grants to small groups of young people for vocational training or to fund the costs of starting a new business. Although a full paper has not yet been published, preliminary findings indicate strong economic benefits of the program which in turn improve social cohesion and community participation while diminishing aggression and “disputes with authorities” among young men. If they bear out, the results may well confirm the oft-repeated policy recommendation that focusing on youth employment is critical to improving national development as well as reducing the likelihood of instability and conflict.
In the year of seven billion, we heard much about the need to invest in young people and the tremendous potential they embody, for demographic dividends as well as overall development. Yet 2011 was also a year of tremendous upheaval, much of which was driven by young people – and their older counterparts – seeking representative and democratic governance. This should serve as a reminder that youth can be a remarkable force for positive change, but in too many places – South Sudan among them – their opportunities, prospects, and contributions are constrained. As the UNICEF survey results reiterate how important this issue is to development programming, the Uganda research may be another important piece of evidence that direct investment in young people reaps tangible results not only for them, but also for society.
Elizabeth Leahy Madsen is a consultant on political demography for the Wilson Center’s Environmental Change and Security Program and senior technical advisor at Futures Group. She was previously a senior research associate at Population Action International.
Sources: Bill and Melinda Gates Institute for Population and Reproductive Health, Chris Blattman, ILO, Sommers and Schwartz (2011), South Sudan National Bureau of Statistics, UNICEF, World Bank.
Photo Credit: “UNAMID Peacekeeper Speaks with Sudanese Youth,” courtesy of UN Photo/Albert Gonzalez Farran.