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The Dynamism of Youth

In an aging world with low birth rates, the 218 million adolescents and youth in Latin America and the Caribbean constitute the region’s most important social and economic asset.

Text and Photos: Carlos Eduardo Gómez

On December 17, 1999, the United Nations General Assembly declared August 12 International Youth Day. The world now understands that young people are blessed with open minds; they are quick to pick up on trends and they bring energy, new ideas, and courage to the struggle to overcome the most complex and significant challenges facing humanity. And, in the words of United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon: “They often better understand that we can transcend religious and cultural differences in order to reach our shared goals of the common good. They are also standing up for the rights of oppressed peoples, including those who suffer discrimination based on gender, race, and sexual orientation.”

This explains why, in an aging world with low birth rates, young people are the most important social and economic asset in Latin America and the Caribbean: more than 218 million adolescents and youth (according to UN-CELAC 2015) want to be heard and are demanding space and opportunities. They have dreams and believe they can create a more harmonious, tolerant, and environmentally-aware world.

We Have a Chance

In an interview with Panorama of the Americas, Esteban Caballero, Regional Director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), explains that Latin America and the Caribbean are going through a unique period of demographic transition, in which the regional share of working-age people between the ages of 15-60 is larger than the share of the population dependent on them. This means that the consumption burden is lower and paid work can be channeled into savings and investment. “This is known as the ‘demographic dividend,’ a socio-demographic concept associated with production and consumption that becomes a window of opportunity for human growth if properly handled.”

Statistics show that Latin America is going through this phase: some countries will enjoy the dividend for a longer period since their population is younger (Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, Bolivia, Paraguay, Panama, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Guyana); some countries fall in the medium-term range (Ecuador, Colombia, Perú, Brazil, and México); while a few are already growing out of this stage (Uruguay, Chile, Cuba, Jamaica, Bahamas, and Trinidad and Tobago) as their populations begin to age and growth rates fall.

Caballero asserts that this exceptional demographic dividend can be put to good use by intelligent government and institutional leaders. Plans to use this resourceful labor force must be clear, reliable, and decisive in order to have any hope of transforming the economy and production and consumption, thereby ensuring well-being, tranquility, peace, and human development for all. Otherwise, the region will miss out on a golden opportunity for a giant leap in social development.

What Can We Do?

According to Caballero, the region needs to invest in young people and provide opportunities for them: “This is the time to make strategic investments in order to guarantee the existence of an empowered, high-potential population that will foster growth in all sectors and generate innovative and lasting development.” He added, Education, health, jobs, and innovation are paramount.

The 2015 inter-disciplinary working group on the demographic dividend confirms that investment in education, both at the family and governmental level, has allowed millions of people to break the cycle of poverty. “Education is what allows an entire generation to become economically independent and to make positive contributions to their families and countries,” he concluded in this 2015 report.

That is why the United Nations recommends that we guarantee the right to accessible, free, quality education, and that it be public, secular, democratic, inter-cultural, gender-aware, and non-discriminatory. “Quality education ensures an effective labor market and greater opportunities for decent jobs that transform the market, consumption, and production in a way that is sustainable in the long term,” said Caballero.

With respect to women, UNFPA experience shows that investing in at least seven years of education for adolescent girls makes them likely to delay marriage for four years longer than peers without such education, and that each additional year of primary school increases their future salaries by 10% to 20%. Other data is equally convincing: when 10% more adolescent girls attend school, a country’s GDP rises an average of 3%; when women earn a salary, they spend 90% of the money on their families, whereas men spend only 30% to 40%.

Thanks to greater investment in educational coverage and quality, young people are now receiving a better education than their parents did. Nonetheless, a third of young people between the ages of 15 and 29 in Latin America and the Caribbean do not go to school or receive any sort of formal education.  The situation is more critical among indigenous peoples, Afro-descendents, and rural residents. In fact, according to a report in The Lancet, “We need to increase investment in scientific education, so that young people can make the major decisions about their education in keeping with their interests and the economic and social needs of their countries.”

Better Health for a Better Life

Adolescence is a vital period in the development of human potential. Investing in the health and well-being of adolescents generates benefits now, for decades to come, and for the next generation. The Lancet’s technical commission on adolescent health and well-being states that “Investment in adolescents should be proportional to their share of the total population, thus creating human capital and opportunities for health and well-being.”

It has been proven that when an adolescent becomes pregnant, not only is her health imperiled, but her education, her potential income, and her entire future are likewise at risk.

Decent Jobs

Esteban Caballero considers the demographic dividend useful if and only if there is a concerted effort to provide this huge number of young people with access to education, science, culture, and the production system through collaborative efforts by the public and private sectors, civil society, and families. “We need to elect good governments, make investments in infra-structure and social welfare, and establish a business climate that favors serious and responsible investment.

States party to the International Labor Organization (ILO) are required to implement policies and programs in the field of vocational guidance and professional training, establishing a close relationship with employment through programs —inside or outside the formal educational system— designed to meet the needs of young people and the job market.”

The 4th Young Americas Forum in Latin America concluded that “An unemployed young person is particularly at risk of poverty, despair, and social exclusion.” Thousands of young people have already been trained and are ready to contribute, but they have not been given the opportunity. Economies will suffer if they fail to use a resource that is so costly to develop; this would be a waste of great potential. An empowered labor force increases internal consumption and production to the benefit of the market.

During the 7th Summit of the Americas, held in Panama in 2015, young people called on leaders around the Americas to plot a strategy for smart economic and social growth that is inclusive, sustainable, and unifying. The region is fortunate to be able to draw on the potential of young people who will undoubtedly find the right path. It is a matter of creating decent jobs that give them a better life, with equitable, fair, and intelligent development, offering an honest path to success in our societies. Young people want, and are able to achieve, a greener world that uses resources more effectively, is more competitive and unified, and strengthens work, social cohesion, and the region.

Finally, notes Caballero, it is encouraging that more and more organizations are committed to social responsibility and good, fair business practices, and that they understand that professional training begins with the educational system, recognizing that young people need more opportunities and that ongoing quality training helps companies to survive and grow in the evolving world of global markets.