Today's students may not realize it, but they belong to the largest peer group in history. This global "youth bulge" of more than 1.2 billion faces economic and social challenges which many young people are ill-equipped to tackle, according to a new report from the International Youth Foundation. Helping prepare this unprecedented number of 15- to 24-year-olds for a more productive future will require better access to education and expanded opportunities to develop essential career skills.
"Time is running out," cautions William Reese of the International Youth Foundation, "if we want to turn the global 'youth bulge' into an economic and social asset." Microsoft commissioned the International Youth Foundation to produce Opportunity for Action: Preparing Youth for 21st Century Livelihoods (download the PDF here).
The report paints a stark picture of youth around the world struggling to gain a foothold in the job market. The world's current youth unemployment rate -- 12.7 percent for those under age 24 -- is more than twice that of the population as a whole.
"The causes of youth unemployment may differ from country to country," says Brad Smith, executive vice president and general counsel for Microsoft, "but the solution is similar everywhere: more education." The most disturbing statistic in the report, he adds, "is that only 56 percent of youth worldwide enroll in the equivalent of high school. That means 44 percent spend their lives with the equivalent of an eighth-grade or lower education."
Meanwhile, technology has changed "what you need to know and to be able to do to get a job and be successful in the workforce," Smith adds. "As a society, we are not getting this generation the education they'll need to be successful over their lifetimes."
Smith hopes the report will be a call to action to engage governments, businesses, and nonprofits to work together on solutions.
Some solutions are already in the pipeline but need to reach more young people, more quickly. The report highlights a variety of promising programs around the world, such as:
- entra21, which brings technology training, internships, and confidence-building opportunities to youth in Latin America
- Career Entrepreneurship and Development Office, which helps Egyptian engineering students develop life skills, entrepreneurial thinking, and workforce readiness
- Youth Empowerment Success, which helps teens and young adults in Russia, Poland, and other countries improve health awareness, confidence, and communication skills so they can make better life choices
Companies that are dependent on a global pipeline of skilled employees have to be part of the solution, Smith adds. Microsoft, for instance, has started a program in Washington State called Technology Education and Literacy in Schools, in which its employees team up with high school teachers to co-teach computer science courses. Businesses that depend on a workforce skilled in STEM fields can do more to partner with schools and provide internships and other experiences outside the traditional classroom, Smith adds. "We need to bring the innovations of STEM to life in a way that excites and engages students."
Corporate support for higher education might mean increasing scholarships and other financial support to make college more accessible. Smith cites a recent effort in Washington to launch a public-private endowment, with Microsoft and Boeing each contributing $25 million to endow college scholarships. "There are a lot of opportunities for businesses to be part of the solution."
Although the report takes a global perspective, it also highlights the opportunity gap affecting youth in the United States. Among the more than 4 million young people unemployed in the U.S. in 2011, the report found disparities among racial groups: 15 percent of Asian youth were unemployed compared with 16 percent white, 20 percent Hispanic, and 31 percent African American.
Smith points to another worrisome statistic. By 2018, 62 percent of jobs in the U.S. will require some college or other post-secondary training. "Yet only 42 percent of youth are pursing education beyond high school today. That 20-point gap is not theoretical. It's about kids who are high school sophomores today. This should be of huge concern for all of us," he says. "If we can't close this gap, we'll have a harder and harder time creating and filling jobs."
Although many young people are on track for college and careers, some seem to be giving up. The report describes "a significant portion of young people in developed economies entering adulthood disengaged from any productive activity whatsoever. There are so many of these young people that a new phrase has been coined to describe them: Not engaged in employment, education, or training (NEET)." Out of work and out of school, these young people also tend to lack role models or social networks to reconnect them with better opportunities.
The report highlights programs such as Year Up, a nonprofit that combines life skills and job training for youth 18-24, as potential solutions to reengage youth on the margins.
Get Students Engaged
Opportunity for Action offers a call to action rather than a blueprint for the future. It illuminates the complex issues facing the youth bulge rather than outlining specific solutions. However, one of the recommended action steps is to engage young people in advocating for their own needs and aspirations.
As a classroom resource, the report can help to inform discussions about global education and the economic trends that will be affecting your students -- and their enormous peer group -- sooner than they expect.
Students who want to get more involved in global education issues may want to take part in Global Action Week from April 23-29. This worldwide initiative of the Global Campaign for Education is focused this year on the critical issues of early childhood care and education. Youth around the globe are expected to contribute photos, drawings, and videos to help world leaders get the "big picture" of what quality education looks like and why it matters.
How are your students advocating for a better future for themselves and their peers? Please share your stories.