Crucially, this high point is with us for a short time only and how we respond to this demographic phenomenon will shape all of our futures. We are in an era of Peak Youth.
So are we on the verge of a catastrophic worsening of the youth unemployment crisis? Or an unprecedented leap forward in economic productivity? Will we have an age of protest and uprisings? Or will young people finally get the hearing they deserve?
All of this is to be decided - but as we celebrated International Youth Day (12th August) I’m feeling optimistic.
As Country Director of Restless Development Tanzania, I’ve seen what can happen when we empower young people to take control of their own lives. Equip them with the correct skills and they will earn a decent living and invest back into the local economy. Enable them with greater space and they will find new solutions to old problems, driving the whole community’s 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 that are blocking 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, they demand change through alternative tactics like campaigning and petitioning. We have seen this first-hand in Tanzania, just look at how a young girl called Eva from Malinzanga made her voice heard, nationally and internationally, in to achieve access to clean water for her community.
This is clear evidence that young people are ready for change, and that we need to work harder to equip and enable them to succeed.
So, how do we do it? Well first of all, we need to break out of the idea that young people’s success depends on adults doing things for young people.
Of course 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, go deliver them in schools and then wonder why their programmes aren’t having the impact they imagined.
The answer is simple: young people were treated as targets and not partners. 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.
Programming is one thing, but if we are to make real, sustainable impact we need to think much bigger. We need to look beyond limited programmatic impact and toward societal-wide change.
Young people should not only be at the heart of programme delivery, but be key influencers and informers too.
That means influencing decision-makers in the sense that they have access to the spaces where power lies and are listened to. But also that they influence decisions directly as power-holders themselves. Young people are continually under-represented in our Parliaments, where people aged 20-44 make up 57% of the world’s voters but just 26% of our representatives.
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.
So there are lots of reasons to be inspired by the potential of this Peak Youth generation. 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?
Margaret Mliwa Country Director for youth focused NGO Restless Development