Youth at the Crossroads: A Generation with Untapped Potential


June 15, 2015, is the first ever United Nations World Youth Skills Day. Commemorating this day recognises that the high level of global youth unemployment has become a critical issue for the world, and also that we are capable of working together – governments, civil society and the private sector – to help youth gain the skills they need to gain access to changing labour markets and to make informed work and life choices.

An extraordinary untapped generation

Today’s youth are extraordinary in many ways, but two key facts may define it as the most critical generation of our time. First, it is the largest cohort of young people to ever live on the planet. There are 1.2 billion youth between the ages of 15-24 alive today, 87 per cent of which live in developing countries that typically struggle to provide adequate social safety nets.(1)  Many countries are experiencing a demographic bulge of its youth population, which can present a number of challenges to society – the first being on the jobs front. The demand to create new jobs can be overwhelming. Most countries will end up with large populations of young people unable to find work.

Youth Bulge

The second key fact of this generation is that they are having a harder time finding work than ever before in recent history. They are three times as likely to unemployed as an adult.(2)  In some places they are four or even five times as likely. Of the 120 million youth that entered the workforce in 2013, 80 per cent couldn’t find a job.(3)  These two facts taken together have created a situation where youth make up 17 per cent of the world’s population, but 40 per cent of its unemployed population. Across Africa, it is 80 per cent.(4)  It is estimated that half the world’s youth are idle – 621 million youth are out of school, unemployed, and not in training.(5) In essence they are stuck.

Those youth that do find or create work, face extreme difficulties in making a real livelihood from their labour. Youth in developing countries account for 23.5% of the working poor.(6)  According to the ILO, more than 200 million youth are working-poor, earning under US$ 2 a day, mostly employed in the informal sectors of developing countries.(7)  A shocking 47% of youth in sub-Saharan Africa were unpaid workers in 2011.(7)  In 2010, 536 million employed youth in developing countries were underemployed.(4)  32% of young employees were on temporary contracts in 2011, compared to 8.9% of adults.(6)  Discouraged, more than 6 million youths have given up looking for a job and are in danger of feeling useless and alienated from society.(2,6)

NEET youth

An education crisis

One key driver of youth unemployment is lack of education and literacy. In nearly all developing countries, the highest unemployment rate is among people with a primary education or less.(8) Far too many children and youth are unable to either access or complete their basic education. About 120 million children of primary and lower secondary school age are not in school,(9) and another 200 million youth dropped out before completing primary school.(10)  Taken together, these alarming statistics mean that one in five young people have not completed their elementary education. Across sub-Saharan Africa nearly 60% of youth are out-of-school, and nearly 30% are unable to read and write.(11,12)

Globally, there are 123 million illiterate youth. Of these, 2/3rd are girls.(12)  Behind these youth are another 250 million children of primary school age that aren’t reading and writing, whether in school or out-of-school.(10) Unless something dramatic changes, these children will become tomorrow’s illiterate youth. The result of all this is that there are millions of youth across the globe who are out-of-school, unable to functionally read and write, and struggling to find work to meet basic needs, let alone to find meaningful work, to participate in their communities, or to start young families.

education crisis

Youth at a crossroads

Today’s youth should be tomorrow’s civic, political, spiritual and economic leaders, the head’s of new households and drivers of economic growth and community renewal. Youth have energy, enthusiasm and a strong desire to find their identity and place in the world. However, many are not adequately prepared for these roles and have too few opportunities and support to gain the skills required. If these opportunities are not provided, what remains are largely negative or destructive pathways to identity and economic participation. There is risk in ignoring the youth population.

The image of youth at a crossroads represents this duel potential: a future where youth are supported and provided opportunities to gain the skills needed to participate positively and constructively in economic and social life, or a future defined by the increasing costs of a generation defined by a skills gap and left unprepared for their future. These costs include:

  • Negative self-identity, decreased social capital, and increased depression and suicide

Being unemployed or ‘between jobs’ can be hard on anyone’s sense of worth place in society. Being unable to ever find a job can be devastating. Research links unemployment with increased rates of depression and suicide. Recently published research using data from 63 countries links unemployment to one out of every five suicides across the globe. Every year, around 45,000 people take their own lives because they are out of work or someone close to them is affected by unemployment.(13)

Research also links unemployment with reduced participation in community activities and a reduction in measures of social capital like trust and civic engagement.(5) This erosion of social cohesion and the weakening of the bonds that bind youth to their communities leave many youth feeling unfettered and marginalized. They neither derive a sense of belonging and care from their community, nor do they engage and contribute positively to it.

  • Economic nomadism, unaccompanied youth migration, and trafficking

Lack of economic opportunity is the primary driver of clandestine or irregular youth migration across the world, exposing hundreds of thousands of youth to deadly risks. Last year, 100,000 unaccompanied children, adolescents and youth left Central America to attempt entrance into the United States. Many of them rode what has become known as “the train of death” north through Mexico, where along the way they are “hunted like animals by corrupt police, bandits, and gang members…most are robbed, beaten, or raped, usually several times. Some are killed.”(14)

Half way around the world, human traffickers’ unseaworthy boats have helped turn the Mediterranean Sea into the world’s largest aquatic mass grave. Last year, 220,000 youth arrived into Europe from North Africa. 3,500 would-be migrants drowned in the crossing. As of April, another 1,800 have died so far this year.(15)

Across Asia, 19% of the international migrant population are adolescents and youth; the majority of these are girls and young women.(16) In May, the International Organization for Migration estimated that as many as 8,000 migrants from Bangladesh and Myanmar were believed to be stranded at sea.(17)

  • Increased participation in dangerous, degrading and illicit work

This includes underage prostitution, mining, and fireworks manufacturing, along with trafficking and child abuse.

  • Increased risky behaviour like drug and alcohol abuse, unprotected sex and criminal activity

The 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health showed that about 1 in 6 unemployed workers are addicted to alcohol or drugs — almost twice the rate for full-time workers.(18) Certainly there is reverse casualty at play here, but research strongly indicates that unemployment heightens a person’s likelihood to binge drink, smoke, or have a drug addiction.

  • Increased recruitment into violent gangs and extremist movements

Studies have shown that joblessness is the top factor leading to participation in gangs. Other research shows that most young people who join violent movements do so not out of ideological loyalty, but in search of an income and an identity. A recent World Bank survey showed that about 40% of those who join rebel movements say they are motivated by a lack of jobs.(19)


Youth viability and the skills gap

It is clear, however, that simply creating more jobs is not enough to solve the global youth unemployment crisis. We “must address the enormous skills deficit that leaves young people unemployable or trapped in subsistence work. Creating more jobs will not fix the problem if a sizeable proportion of young people do not have the skills needed to fill them” (Youth and Skills)

Youth viability is a term we use at World Vision to frame a set of ways to invest in the successful and safe transition of children into adults that are engaged and active economic citizens. It has five parts:

  1. Basic Skills – including functional literacy, financial literacy and digital literacy
  2. Life Skills – including those related to social emotional intelligence and work-readiness
  3. Technical and vocational skills – along with professional competencies that provide youth with marketable productive capacity for employment or entreprenuership
  4. Access to capital – including savings, microloans, seed money, and other age-appropriate financial services
  5. Relational support – including family and peer support, adult mentors and business coaches

These are the five critical areas where governments, the private sector and civil society can partner to invest in improved youth employment outcomes.

investing in youth viability

What is World Vision doing to help?

In my work at World Vision, I created a project model called “Youth Ready: for work, for life.” This model, being adapted for use across the globe, helps prepare youth for economic opportunity and to contribute to the greater good and care for others. This includes providing youth with opportunities to gain vocational and technical skills, basic skills like functional literacy, financial literacy and digital literacy, soft skills related to communication, critical thinking, creativity, collaboration among others, as well as to gain on-the-job skills through internship or apprenticeship opportunities. The project model also provides adult mentoring and business coaching, helps the youth form a working savings group, and provides financial support to young entrepreneurs through business plan competitions.

As we commemorate World Youth Skills Day, we must highlight the need to close the skills gap by focusing on providing youth access to alternative pathways to skills aquisition in contexts with high rates of school dropout. Offering informal, second chance learning for literacy, life skills and basic skills, and work-based training to further develop soft skills and technical and vocational skills can help out-of-school youth close the skills gap and be prepared to participate and contribute positively in their communities’ economic growth and political, civic and social development.


Shout out to the amazing team of colleagues at World Vision, including Bryna Jones, Meredith Hastings, James Pedrick, Paul Newnham, and Kate Williams who helped with this post, including the creation of the infographics from my research, editing of the text, and sharpening of my thoughts.


  1. UN World Youth Report 2012, The UN Focal Point for Youth, 2012
  2. Global Employment Trends for Youth 2012. May, 2012. Geneva: International Labour Organization. (The global adult unemployment rate is 4.5% while the global youth unemployment rate is 12.6%.)
  3. International Youth Foundation, Annual Report 2013
  4. Working with Youth: Addressing the Youth Employment Challenge, May, 2012. Geneva: International Labour Organization.
  5. World Development Report 2013, World Bank
  6. Temporary, Part-time jobs: a Trap for Youth?” International Labour Organization, 2012.
  7. The Youth Employment Crisis: A Call for Action; Resolution and Conclusions of the 101st Session of the International Labour Conference. 2012. Geneva: International Labour Organization.
  8. Key Indicators of the Labour Market 7th 2011. Geneva: International Labour Organization
  9. “Progress in Getting All Children to school Stalls, but Some Countries Show the Way Forward,” Policy Paper 14 / Fact Sheet 28. UNESCO Institute for Statistics and Education for all Global Monitoring Report. June, 2014.
  10. “Youth and Skills: Putting Education to Work”, Education For all Global Monitoring Report. UNESCO, 2012.
  11. “Out-of-School Youth in Developing Countries: What the data do (and do not) tell us” EDC, 2010.
  12. “Adult and Youth Literacy: National, regional and global trends, 1985-2015” UNESCO Institute for Statistics, 2013.
  13. Carlos Nordt, Ingeborg Warnke, Erich Seifritz, Wolfram Kawohl. Modelling suicide and unemployment: a longitudinal analysis covering 63 countries, 2000-2011. The Lancet Psychiatry. online February 11, 2015
  14. Enrique’s Journey, Sonia Nazario (Random House, 2006)
  15. “Mediterranean migrant crisis: EU refugee quotas to be proposed” BBC, May 11, 2015
  16. Regional Overview: Youth in Asia and the Pacific. Fact Sheet, Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP).
  17. International Organization for Migration, quoted in “’Thousands’ of Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants stranded at sea” BBC, May 11, 2015
  18. This report, published September 2013, is downloadable from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration at
  19. World Development Report, 2011 “Unemployment and Participation in Violence”

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Categories: Development, Education


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  1. Thoughts on Youth and Violence on International Youth Day 2015 | Staying for Tea - August 12, 2015

    […] Day. Last month I wrote a longer piece about youth for World Youth Skills Day called “Youth at the Crossroads: A Generation with Untapped Potential.” I’ll let that stand as my contribution to the conversation about the state of youth […]

  2. Youth at the crossroads: A generation with untapped potential | WhyDev - August 12, 2015

    […] versions of this post appeared on Staying for Tea and World Vision […]

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