Youth populations are exploding in the world’s most volatile regions. Is the world ready?

On May 6th US Agency for International Development (USAID) Administrator Samantha Power will unveil the agency’s first new Youth in Development policy in just under a decade. The new policy, or even its focus on the influence of youth populations, is unlikely to make headlines. It should.

As leaders grapple with the ongoing pandemic, geopolitical competition, and a compounding climate and energy crisis, a demographic deluge of young people may be the least discussed but most impactful megatrend that will shape our collective future. Today’s global youth population of 1.2 billion is the largest in human history, with profound consequences, positive or negative, for politics and geopolitics, economic vitality, environmental sustainability, migration, and public health. And this massive wave of youth has not yet crested. The United Nations projects a youth population of 1.34 billion by 2050. This explosion of young people demands an all-hands-on-deck approach to ensure we reap the potential benefits of this tsunami — and avoid the most damaging consequences.

There’s more: As the populations of many wealthier countries age, youth are increasingly concentrated in geographies less equipped to support them. Already, half the population of Niger is under the age of 15, with Mali, Uganda, Chad, Angola, and Somalia close behind. Guatemala has the largest youth population in Latin America with 61% of its people under the age of 30. Afghanistan, which ranks ninth in the Fragile States Index, has one of the world’s fastest growing youth populations. Two-thirds of the world’s extreme poor will live in fragile states by 2030, half of them children.

Booming youth populations will have geopolitical consequences as young people’s experiences and expectations shape the trajectories of countries with strategic locations and large populations. Take India, which is currently home to more children than any country at any time in history. Or Pakistan, where 64% of the population is younger than 30, and where growing youth populations are forecasted to grow until 2050. Consider Nigeria, which is expected to become the third most populous country in the world when its population passes 400 million by 2050, and where the current median age is 18 years old. Or Iran, now home to more than 80 million people, where half of the population is under 40 and a quarter are under the age of 14. Or Egypt, where 60% of the population is under 30 and the current population of 102 million is expected to double by 2078.

Now juxtapose these young populations with rankings of countries most vulnerable to climate change and, unfortunately, many of the same nations reappear. Niger, Somalia, Sudan, Mali, Mozambique, Afghanistan, and Yemen are among those most at risk. Pakistan is an epicenter of extreme weather, severe heat, and fresh water shortages. More than 64% of young people in Nigeria, Namibia, Ghana, and South Africa believe climate change is an emergency.

Young people have born the brunt of social and economic consequences unleashed by the COVID-19 pandemic. According to UNICEF, 214 million students have missed at least three-quarters of classroom instruction time since March 2020. Young people, especially in lower income countries, were disproportionately more likely to be left unemployed by the pandemic. Even before COVID-19, fewer than half of the one billion young people entering the job market were likely to be successful when trying to find formal jobs. In Jordan, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia, youth unemployment rates already exceeded 30%; meanwhile youth populations are expected to grow more than 20% in the next 15 years.

Do I have your attention yet?

Fortunately, there are powerful forces that could brighten this grim prognosis, the most important of which are youth themselves. Young populations brim with energy and creativity. They are more educated, tech-savvy, and connected than any youth population in history. Historically young populations drive economic growth but there is an urgent need to cultivate this potential. And as the recent war in Ukraine has shown, youth are able to lead now. Ukrainian youth are distributing humanitarian relief, organizing to get Ukraine’s message out to the world, and creating new tech platforms to link people with needs to people who can help.

The following steps are critical if we want to reap the potential benefits of the growing global youth population and avoid the most damaging consequences.

Invest in youth: Governments, as well as foreign aid agencies and philanthropists, must invest in the potential of young people globally. They must ensure that well-targeted resources go to education, employment, healthcare (both mental and physical), violence prevention, and other priorities that shape youth trajectories.

Create a path to work: Young people need paths to work that provide livelihoods and dignity. They need quality education that teaches them how to think, not just memorize facts. They also need skills and a path to employment, in the formal and informal sectors or through entrepreneurship.

Give youth a voice, and influence: Only half of youth globally believe they can make a difference in how their country is governed. This is an opportunity. Youth can improve their communities if their voices are heard and they have pathways to leadership and civic engagement. More pluralistic governance provides one path — but whereas some studies show stable youth support for democracy, a recent Cambridge study shows declining satisfaction in key regions.

Prevent, or prepare for, migration: A combination of extreme weather, lack of economic opportunity, and violence is likely to spur an exodus of young people. Destination countries have a choice: invest in reversing some of the forces that compel young people to want to leave their homes, welcome more immigrants, or spend far more defending their borders (without alleviating any of the human suffering outside them).

One thing is certain. Surging youth populations is one of the world’s greatest challenges but it is also our biggest hope for the future. But will we harness the enormous power for good in this demographic wave of young people, or be swamped by it?

Dr. Kristin M. Lord is President and CEO of IREX. She recently completed her second term as Co-Chair of the Alliance for International Youth Development

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