The recent Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development focused world attention on building the future we want. On the occasion of the International Youth Day that falls today, we should remember that we have a very precious resource — our youth — that could provide for a sustainable future.
Over 60 per cent of the world’s youth lives in Asia and the Pacific, which translates into over 750 million young people between the ages of 15 and 24. This represent a key asset for the countries of our region. Today’s young generation is growing up in a world of uncertainty. Volatility exists in the global economy and financial markets, high levels of unemployment are prevalent, education systems are being pressured to adapt to new and emerging needs and there are many threats to the health of our youth.
A key challenge facing the Asia-Pacific region is youth employment. The European sovereign debt crisis has reduced global demand and Asia-Pacific has started to suffer as a result. Industrial output in several countries in East and Southeast Asia is falling. With weak overseas demand, many export-oriented manufacturing economies are beginning to contract. It is the youth that will bear the brunt of these effects through a job squeeze and cuts in spending on social services.
As it is, youth employment is already often precarious. Young people abound in vulnerable employment where jobs are characterised by insecurity, low wages, poor working conditions and lack of social protection. Almost 50 million young people are looking for jobs across the Asia-Pacific region. Lacking economic and social opportunities, many are forced into high-risk and vulnerable forms of employment. Such vulnerability disproportionately affects women, who are particularly underrepresented in the labour market and are thus an untapped resource for future economic growth and development.
Vulnerability in the labour market hits youth of lower socio-economic status the hardest. This disadvantage begins before young people start working given the correlation between family income and youth educational attainment. Young people from lower income backgrounds have poorer educational outcomes than their better off peers, which limits their employment prospects. This situation points to the pressing need to ensure effective school-to-work transition. We need to pursue job-led growth by creating more, better and greener jobs for young people through a decent work agenda. We must provide for equal opportunities for young women and men and promote an enabling environment for entrepreneurship.
Future economic growth is dependent upon our young people. Yet, youth should not be seen as just a target group for which employment must be found. We must recognise young people as partners for development. Across the world, young people are leading social movements and are calling for political leadership that delivers greater accountability, opportunities and social justice. They are telling business and industry to promote transparent and just business practices. They are demanding that their voices be heard and their roles be recognised both as future leaders and as today’s partners. There have been notable achievements in the Asia-Pacific region with regard to the building of institutions that support the leadership and participation of young people in national decision-making.
We must reach out to all youth, regardless of ethnicity, gender, socio-economic status or disability, to support their full development and participation in economic, social and political life. By investing in our youth, the Asia-Pacific region can ensure a more inclusive and sustainable future for all.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 12th, 2012.