This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders—from around the world and all parts of society—discuss and develop solutions now and for the future. Aiming to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge, opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.
This year, on 9–10 June, the need to build a better future for and with young people was a central focus of the main annual OECD Ministerial, resulting in the adoption of a Recommendation on Creating Better Opportunities for Young People. The Recommendation addresses major challenges that young people face, including the transition into and within the labour market, promoting social inclusion and well-being beyond economic outcomes, and strengthening the trust of young people of all backgrounds in government and their relationships with public institutions.
In 2022, as we stand on the edge of yet another economic downturn, still finding our way through the aftermath of a global pandemic, why should OECD members and non-members alike prioritise the empowerment of young generations?
As a young person today, it is becoming harder to remember a time when my generation wasn't living through a time of crisis. For years we have continuously been at the forefront of periods of mass unemployment and financial instability, where austerity measures and a lack of support left us with the undesirable label of the "lost generation".
The impact of COVID-19 was another stark reminder that the way things are being run are simply not working for the people they are intended for, nor the planet. For a generation that is committed to building a sustainable future, the solution is clear. We need to learn from the mistakes of the recent past and take action now.
To do so, young people need to be equipped to navigate these challenges, and be empowered to positively contribute to creating sustainable, fair societies. This needs to be backed by a robust system that closes inequality gaps and promotes fair opportunities for all young people. Here are three ways to do that.
A 2022 report published by the European Commission found that young people were among the most negatively affected by job losses during the economic crisis triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Levelling the playing field to create equal opportunities for all
The reality is that the labour market for young people today is continually changing. The prevalence of precarious contracts and the rise of the gig economy means that young workers are disproportionately at risk of working under poor conditions. The transition from education to employment often requires taking on unpaid positions just to get experience, while many are excluded from social protection systems due to age or other barriers. It is no surprise then, that a 2022 report published by the European Commission found that young people were among the most negatively affected by job losses during the economic crisis triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic.
In times of crisis, those living in vulnerable or precarious situations are always the first to suffer the impact. This means that for certain groups, the consequences can be even more severe. For example, the European Youth Forum’s own research, “Beyond Lockdown: The ‘pandemic scar’ on youth” found that young people in marginalised situations were twice as likely to be affected by job loss compared to other young people. As well as being the first to lose their job, young people are often the last to be re-hired.
To proactively protect young people from reliving this deeply disruptive and scarring cycle of unemployment and instability, a focus on guaranteeing quality jobs and access to labour rights is essential. This needs to be supported by adequate security nets, in which young people are able to access social protection without any age-based restrictions. These are just some of the ways of making sure that no one falls through the cracks.
Read more on the Forum Network about The Power of Youth: Giving young people a platform and engaging with local communities by Ayla Johnstone, Chairperson, Franklin Youth Advisory Board
Placing sustainability and well-being at the heart
To some, the OECD’s recommendation to focus on social inclusion and well-being beyond economic outcomes may be counterintuitive to solving some of these problems. Surely by improving a country’s GDP, we can stimulate job creation and bring back some stability to the job market?
The answer is not as simple. As demonstrated by the European Youth Forum’s Youth Progress Index, which brings together data from over 150 countries globally, a high GDP does not necessarily equate to a high level of well-being, opportunity and access to rights. By measuring how well countries meet basic needs and ensure access to human rights—irrespective of how much is invested—we can see that political choices and methods of identifying needs, have a significant part to play in whether young people have a good quality of life.
Targeted measures and smarter spending that effectively address inequalities can therefore produce better results. During COVID-19, we heard that in Slovenia for example, the project "Together for knowledge" worked on maintaining regular communication with Roma students and parents, distributing electronic devices, and ensuring that distance education reached all students. In the Netherlands, a national social package worth EUR 1.4 billion was developed, with a significant part focused on preventing school leaver drop out and youth unemployment by encouraging young people to extend their education. While these are examples of short-term solutions, what we need is a complete overhaul of the system so that policies and budgets work for all people and the planet, and so that crises can be prevented or at least better cushioned.
As it stands, the consequences of today’s decisions will not only directly affect young people, but will also impact society as a whole.
Providing opportunities for young people to be at the table
Finally, to achieve the level of political transformation needed to mitigate current and future crises, the inclusion of young people in decision-making is crucial. Shockingly, only 2.6% of parliamentarians around the world are under the age of 30. Is it any wonder that young people’s concerns and best interests are often less of a priority in decision making?
The Be Seen Be Heard global survey, in collaboration with the UN Youth Envoy, found that three quarters (76%) of under 30-year-olds think politicians don’t listen to young people. Additionally, 69% of those surveyed believe that creating more opportunities for younger people to have a say in policy development and change would make political systems better.
As it stands, the consequences of today’s decisions will not only directly affect young people, but will also impact society as a whole. Empowering young people to exercise their democratic right to participate in public and political life, as recommended by the OECD, must also be complemented with the creation of genuine spaces where young people and youth organisations can meaningfully shape policies that will affect their lives.
Working towards a better now and a better future, together
By building inclusive, equal societies, and empowering young people to access their social and democratic rights, governments are not only mitigating future crises, but they are ensuring that all young people are equipped to navigate the challenges ahead. Waiting for the next major crisis to hit before taking steps to support the most vulnerable is not an option. When young people’s lives, their future and the future of our planet is at stake, there is no time to lose.