This post was written by NobleHour Special Contributor Natasha Derezinski-Choo.
Young people aged 10-24 make up 25 percent of the world’s population (The World’s Youth 2013 Data Sheet) —that’s just fewer than two billion people. Now, given that middle-aged people are not appearing out of thin air, increased numbers of young people signify a trend of exponential population growth worldwide. “Youth and the State of the World, a report generated by Advocates for Youth, found that counting everyone 24 and under (including children under ten), youth make up around 40 percent of the world. Increased population growth and a large proportion of young people is associated with developing economies where birth rates are increasing, making for larger family sizes, and death rates are decreasing. Of course, “the world” is a little vague, and upon breaking down the geographic distribution of young people, “Youth and the State of the World” finds that “60 percent of youth live in Asia; 15 percent, in Africa; 10 percent, in Latin America and the Caribbean; and the remaining 15 percent, in developed countries and regions.” These numbers demonstrate that though the overwhelming global trend is that of a growing youth demographic, the uneven distribution of youth over the globe makes for a number of challenges to overcome in ensuring countries’ future prosperity and livelihood held in the hands of young people.
Young people means potential, but potential is fragile. For countries with a large proportion of young people the future could hold success. Take, for example India, one of the fastest largest and fastest growing populations and growing economies with 362.0 million people aged 10-24—more than all of Africa’s 344.4 million. Danielle Rajendram’s article “The Promise and Peril of India’s Youth Bulge” in The Diplomat describes such a fragile state in India: “Provided India can act quickly on health, education and employment, this demographic dividend has the potential to inject new dynamism into its flagging economy.” As the history of many post-industrial countries can attest, economically, a growing population means there is a surplus in labor force as well as more people for the economy to support. To keep this balance, countries need proper investment in their youth in order to industrialize and prosper in a globalized economy. Investment in education is vital. Young people who are educated can get better, higher-paying jobs, live healthier lives, have a higher standard of living, and make more informed decisions. In addition to education, young people need opportunities so countries don’t suffer from brain drain—the process where educated people go abroad for better work, thus depleting the economy of qualified workers. For India and countries like it, the proper amount of investment in infrastructure and industry is essential to fully benefiting from changes in population demographics.
As the title of Rajendram’s article suggests, with the potential for success comes the possibility for failure. Improper investment in education, healthcare programs, and job-creating could mean that countries with high numbers of impoverished youth could remain impoverished. Rather than empowering youth to advance their financial situation, a country could simply end up with more people in deeper poverty. It’s a matter of an opportunity being present and creating opportunity for those present. As Rajendram explains, “The failure of a number of Latin American countries with the same demographic profile as Southeast Asia to achieve similarly impressive economic outcomes is a cautionary tale for India [. . .] The relationship here is mutually reinforcing; India must harness the advantage of its youth to fulfill its economic potential, and in turn must generate growth in order to continue to support its growing population. As noted by India's former Minister of Human Resource Development, Kapil Sibal, ‘it will be a dividend if we empower our young. It will be a disaster if we fail to put in place a policy and framework where they can be empowered.’” The growing youth population is a constant factor in the equation, but the resources put into taking advantage of such an opportunity will determine young people’s future.
A surplus of young people is like a young sapling. Watered and cared for it will grow and with it raise a country’s wealth and standard of living. However, neglect will result in a powerful storm that will knock the frail tree down and bring a country to a situation of poverty lower than that of the roots.
Young people are not in a surplus everywhere though. The before mentioned small “remaining 15 percent [aged 10-24], in developed countries and regions” live in the developed world where population is not growing, but declining. Rather than raising large families like those of the developing world, people of post-industrial economies are having less and less children resulting in a small proportion of young people and a towering number of older people. On the shoulders of this declining number of young people is ensuring successful enterprise to support the overwhelming retired generation. Government programs created to curve the collapse of these economies include incentives for having children, and education reform to help students attain university education so they can later contribute more to the economy and the livelihood of older generations. The situation is reversed from the developing world but its fragility is the same as the young sapling.
In this brief overview of the situation of young people, it is evident that there is no simple solution to the many challenges presented. Today there are more young people than ever, and with young people comes and immense amount of potential and responsibility for that potential. Perhaps there is little one can do to change policy on opposite sides of the globe, but global awareness is still important everywhere, as well as understanding the significance of young people’s contribution. In just a few paragraphs I can only touch the tip of the iceberg, but a few things seem clear. Enriching education, infrastructure, global awareness, and investments is key to empowering youth and enabling them to face the challenges of tomorrow. With more youth today than ever before, these are unchartered waters.
image source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/yorickr/4511065370