The Private Sector Can Help Solve Millennials' Biggest Issues

Today is International Youth Day. It may seem odd that there is a political awareness day for youth. But take these statistics into consideration: There are more young people today than at any point in history; nearly half of the world’s population is under 25; and in countries such as India, Egypt, China, young people comprise the majority of the population. Yet, despite their numbers, young people are two and a half times as likely as their adult counterparts to be unemployed. In the global economic downturn, young people, even those with graduate degrees, are finding it difficult to gain meaningful employment.

With numbers like these, it makes sense that the United Nations — like it did with Earth Day for the environment in 1970 — established a day to increase awareness of this critical demographic. For it is the world’s youth, in this new century of unpredictability, who will determine what the future will look like.

But we know that youth today are striving for more. Whether demanding democracy and equality from their governments, or creating innovative tools to help the most vulnerable, they are working to drive positive change.

What can we do to help? The public, private, and social sectors are struggling with this critical question. There are no simple answers, but a few things are clear—we must scale up innovative approaches, and we must commit to a multi-stakeholder approach that includes young people as part of the solution. Luckily, there are some promising models to learn from in two areas that have been the most difficult to tackle – education and employment.

First, we need to create targeted ways to get more kids into the classroom. According to the United Nations, 57 million primary-aged children are out of school—more than the entire population of Spain. Study after study has proven that, especially for pre-school age children, a lack of education during this key development period leads to stunted economic prospects down the line.

One promising model is the UN’s Global Education First initiative (GEFI), which aims to put every child in school, improve the quality of learning, and foster global citizenship. What makes it so innovative is that it brings together leading businesses — including Coca-Cola, Discovery, and Accenture — to work with governments in transforming education for millions of underserved children. It also uses the power and voice of young advocates from around the world, who are both leading advocacy efforts, as well as informing policy decisions.

We can’t talk about youth without mentioning their connection to technology. Technology is improving access to information, and can in the education space as well. One opportunity the international community should invest in is expanding access to massive open online courses (or MOOCs), which can deliver top-tier teaching to the computers of young people anywhere on the planet. With improved internet access, young people can learn from the same professors and books as their more-fortunate peers.

At the same time, we must move to where the audience will be — not where it has been for the past century. For instance, the State Department is experimenting with ways to get learning tools, such as English language training, on mobile devices to do just that. Indeed, in Africa — the largest concentration of young people on the planet — there are more mobile phone users than in the U.S. or the European Union. If Avatar can fit in your pocket, so should a computer science class.

Furthermore, just as we must innovate in our classrooms, we must seek innovation in our labor markets. From Europe to North Africa, youth unemployment is a key policy challenge for a country’s stability and prosperity, not just a sideline issue that can be addressed in the future. In the Middle East and North Africa alone, 75 million jobs will need to be created by 2020 in order to simply maintain current levels.

One innovation that can assist job creation is taking a multi-stakeholder approach. The private sector, education sector, and government at all levels, need to find ways to collaborate, each bringing their unique assets to the table.

Perhaps most importantly, there needs to be recognition of a “global skill-set” that places entrepreneurial thinking and technological capabilities at its core. Technological proficiency, which is now the common parlance when communicating globally, needs to be given priority around the world. Governments can be more proactive here by helping to connect young people to resources. Platforms that connect youth to their peers across the world, often for social reasons, can also be leveraged to connect them to assets such as mentor networks and employment opportunities.

There is no doubt that young people will have a prominent role in shaping a 21st century world, as they’ve already shown. Success for all of us will depend on whether they are able to realize their potential to be positive drivers of change.

Zeenat Rahman is a Truman Security Fellow. This article originally appeared in The Hill.

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Zeenat Rahman

Zeenat Rahman serves as Secretary Kerry’s Special Adviser on Global Youth Issues and Director of the Office of Global Youth Issues (J/GYI). Under her leadership, the office operates as a nexus between policy and practice, incorporating youth voices into critical debates that help shape global affairs. Through a variety of mechanisms, including private sector partnerships, and cooperation with an extensive network of over 50 Youth Councils worldwide, the office amplifies youth issues and supports youth-driven solutions to many of the world’s most pressing problems. The Office of Global Youth Issues has three primary objectives: (1) empowering young people as economic and civic actors through U.S. programs and policies, (2) encouraging governments to respond to youth issues through U.S. diplomacy, and (3) directly connecting with young people around the world to inspire positive change. Prior to this appointment, Special Adviser Rahman served as Acting Director of the Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships at the United States Agency for International Development. In this role, she led external engagement efforts with various faith based and community organizations to build support for USAID priorities. These priorities included President Barack Obama's Feed the Future food security initiative, Child Survival Campaign, and efforts to address the drought and famine in the Horn of Africa (2011). She also worked closely with the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships to expand partnerships with faith-based and nonprofit groups around the United States. Prior to her government service, she was Director of Policy at the Interfaith Youth Core, where she worked closely with the White House and various federal agencies in order to advance programs related to youth, religious identity, interreligious engagement and interfaith service. During her career, she has built and managed international youth programs in over a dozen countries, traveling abroad frequently to speak about the importance of youth leadership in promoting civic engagement and harmony between diverse communities. Special Adviser Rahman is a term member of the Council on Foreign Relations, a member of the British Council’s Transatlantic Network 2020, and a Truman National Security Fellow. She received a master’s degree in Middle East studies from the University of Chicago, where her thesis work focused on youth religious identity in the 21st century. She received a BA in psychology from the University of Illinois.

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