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Photo: Restless Development

Young people are changing our planet, here's how we can join them

11 August 2017

We need to talk about young people. The world is home to more young people than ever before - but for a short time only. Over the next few decades, the proportion of young people on the planet will grow for a little while longer and then it will max out and start to fall. 

We are in the era of Peak Youth. What this all adds up to is yet be decided - some consider the world to be on the verge of a catastrophic worsening of the youth unemployment crisis, others an unprecedented leap forward in economic productivity. More still predict an age of protest and uprisings or one in which young people finally get the hearing they deserve.

As we celebrate International Youth Day (12 August) I’m feeling optimistic.

As UK director at Restless Development, I’ve seen what can happen when we empower young people to take control of their own lives, wherever they live in the world. Equip young people with the correct skills and they will earn a decent living and invest back into the local economy. Give them the space and they will find new solutions to old problems, driving whole communities’ development forward.

Too often, out of fear or misconception, we hold young people back from driving the change both they and we all desire. By not listening to young job-hunters, we are failing to address the mismatch between the skills that our formal education system provides and the skills that businesses need. By treating youth representatives as decoration instead of decision-makers, we are slowing down the removal of the barriers to change.

Young people are not waiting for permission to lead. As the skills mismatch continues, they are building up their abilities independently through volunteering programmes. Where formal access to decision making is cut-off or the space to be heard is particularly crowded, they demand change through alternative tactics like protest and using their interconnectedness on social media. We have seen this first-hand all over the world, from the Not Too Young To Run campaign in Nigeria to the Black Lives Matter movement in the USA.

Responding to this is not about people in power “gifting” young people their time, or creating special initiatives where young people are passive targets. Nor is it about young people proving they deserve a seat at the table. Young people are leaders of today and tomorrow - they should always have that seat.

When it comes to responding better, it’s hard to know where to begin. A good place to start is to challenge the idea that young people’s success depends on adults doing things for young people.

There are many things the rest of society can do, but more often than not the answer is to get out of the way and make room for young people to lead. Too often "experts" sit in a room to design programmes to support young people and then wonder why their programmes aren’t having the impact they imagined.

The answer is simple: treat young people as partners and not targets. If you want youth programming to be effective, make sure that young people are at the heart of its design, delivery and evaluation too. They are best placed to know what their needs are and what tactics will work to engage them.

We also have a huge opportunity to connect young people’s deep knowledge and experiences together in a way in which just wasn’t possible before. If our youth are better able to inform each other about their successes and failures, then we can learn fast and speed up the development of entire communities. Increasing digital accessibility makes this prospect even more exciting. 

Young people should not only be at the heart of programme delivery, but be key influencers and informers too. This means that young people not only have that all-important seat at the table, but they’re present as equals, driving decision-making based on their own unique experiences. 

Seen from this perspective, it is shocking that while people aged 20-44 make up 57% of the world’s voters only 26% of our representatives are in that age group.

If there’s one thing you connect with the Peak Youth generation then let it be this: young people are not idle or hopelessly frustrated. They are more active, connected and able than ever before. They are shaping today and creating tomorrow, whether we like it or not. The question is - are we ready to join them?

About the author

Rosanne Palmer-White
Restless Development

Rosanne Palmer-White is UK director at Restless Development, having previously served the agency as head of policy and practice. Over the last five years, she has also worked in UK and global advocacy roles for Save the Children and Tearfund.