Youth Skills, Innovation and Sustainable Development: An Opportunity Not to Be Missed

When the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in September 2015, there was widespread agreement on the fact that the international community’s progress towards a sustainable future should be a matter of utmost importance for all the inhabitants of our planet, but particularly for younger generations.

Across the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 169 related targets included in the Agenda, a close look at the available data reveals the unique toll that poverty, war, social exclusion, climate change and environmental degradation are taking on young people worldwide. As a consequence, the Agenda itself emphasizes the need to address some of these daunting challenges, particularly focusing on unemployment, access to education and health care, and general lack of opportunities for the full realization of young people’s rights and capabilities.

Youth skills: the other side of youth unemployment

For many governments, unemployment remains the most immediate of such concerns. In 2016, the International Labour Organization estimated that the global unemployment rate for youth has reached 13.1 percent, three times the adult unemployment rate. In addition, it is especially worrying that up to two-thirds of youth in developing economies are currently without work, not studying, or engaged in irregular or informal employment, thereby fueling the risk of social unrest and further affecting the likelihood of conflict and migration.

Yet, when discussing the need to curb youth unemployment, it is often forgotten that meeting the targets enshrined under SDG 8 is not only important in and of itself, but also for its potential to contribute to the achievement of the other 16 SDGs. More specifically, the issue is not ‘simply’ that of creating jobs for disenfranchised young people, but to mobilize the skills of nearly 1.8 billion citizens between the age of 15 and 30, who currently represent the most educated generation in the history of the world, in support of a sustainable transformation of our economies and societies. 

Globally, it has been estimated that young people are 1.6 times more likely than older adults to become entrepreneurs, have higher literacy rates, and are more networked than the global population as a whole. In fact, in the world’s least developed countries, young people are nearly three times more likely than the general population to be using the internet.

In other words, young innovators around the world are already taking an innovative approach to the achievement of the SDGs, ranging from their endeavors in business and social enterprise to their contribution to charity initiatives, and including applied research, the improvement of education, and the promotion of greater accountability for decision-makers at all levels. Why, then, it is so difficult to showcase and support the skills of young people in a rapidly changing society?

Providing support to youth skills to reach the SDGs

On the one hand, young people continue to have a limited presence in the decision-making processes and accountability mechanisms in their respective countries. Better avenues for youth participation are needed to truly represent younger generations in the implementation of the SDGs, for example by enhancing youth involvement in the electoral cycle and encouraging their active contribution to formal political institutions.

Even more importantly, however, decision-makers often fail to grasp the extent to which youth skills and creativity could really have an impact in today’s world, because they simply don’t know how much youth-led innovation is already happening, and of what kind. In 2017, SDSN Youth, the global youth chapter of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN), published the first edition of its Youth Solutions Report, to map the efforts of young innovators around the world and provide them with a platform that addresses the difficulties that they face in securing funding, building capacity, communicating their experience and ultimately scaling their efforts. 

The Report does not just represent an attempt at directly supporting youth-led initiatives in business, research, education and charity aimed at achieving the SDGs. On the contrary, it also underlines the most pressing needs that investors, policymakers and all relevant stakeholders should take into account when seeking to mobilize youth skills for sustainable development, and accordingly provides them with a list of concrete recommendations. In particular, SDSN Youth identifies three key priority areas, namely (i) access to capital and financial services; (ii) access to knowledge, mentoring opportunities and lifelong learning programmes; and (iii) increased visibility.

By swiftly acting on these areas, and by making sure that such action is consistently aligned with the SDG framework, public and private actors have an unprecedented potential to change the narrative on the condition of young people in the 21st century, not only from one centered on youth needs to one based on youth skills, but also from one where youth skills are just framed as necessary to tackle unemployment to one where these very skills are mobilized in support of sustainable development in all countries and regions. 

Translated from original article in Italian for Fondazione Giangiacomo Feltrinelli

Featured photo by UK Department for International Development, CC BY-2.0