Today, about 1.8 billion of our world’s population is between the ages of 10 and 24, and half of the world’s population is under 30. Never in history have we seen so many young people. This brings about incredible potential and power for change. As they work their way through the norms of society — and at the same time question it — young people can be the driving force for true innovation, with the power to change the world for the better. But make no mistake that this transition is not always an easy one. As they confront hardships, it is normal to experience emotional distress, which can turn into lifelong obstacles down the road ahead, especially in countries where young people lack peer support or even the opportunity to explore their emotional growth.
Looking at the available facts and figures, the reality is that the youthful portion of the world’s population is largely dissatisfied and unmotivated. Concentrated mostly in developing countries — and affected by huge unemployment rates and lack of education — they frequently resort to measures such as protests, violence, and illegal migration. Members of this vulnerable group often end up dropping out of school, and, in many cases, they fall victim to rape, unwanted pregnancies, domestic violence, or human trafficking.
To list just a few examples of the existing trends:
- About nine out of 10 people between the ages of 10 and 24 live in less-developed countries.
- In 2015, 74 million young people (ages 15 to 24) were unemployed, which accounts for 36 percent of all unemployed people worldwide.
- One study of 69 countries found that being without a job translates into young people’s negative views about the effectiveness of democracy.
- Two-thirds of youth in developing economies are without work, not studying, or are engaged in irregular or informal employment.
- Fourteen percent of girls, and 18 percent of boys, aged 13 to 15 years in low- and middle-income countries are reported to consume alcohol.
- One in six adolescents (ages 14 to 16) does not complete primary school.
- The first sexual experience of 45 percent of women who were under 15 at the time of their sexual initiation was forced into the act.
- Every 10 minutes, somewhere in the world, an adolescent girl dies as a result of violence.
- Approximately 430 young people aged 10 to 24 die every day due to interpersonal violence.
- Globally, 43 percent of homicide victims are aged 15 to 29.
- In any given year, about 20 percent of adolescents will experience a mental health problem, most commonly depression or anxiety.
- Throughout the world, more than 600 million young people live in fragile and conflict-affected contexts.
- Migrants under the age of 30 represent 32 percent of all international immigrants, the majority (60 percent) of which live in developing countries.
This evidently raises the question: How do we channel all of that strong, youthful energy toward more productive action?
These situations are obviously very real, and are a response to fragile systems, which can take a long time to strengthen. However, there is a lot that can be done through changes in the youth’s and the surrounding communities’ mentality. No matter how hard the situation may be, young people can learn that there is always a way to respond positively and constructively. Ultimately, that change in mentality can also have a real impact on their imminent community and macro systemic levels. As acknowledged by an official report by the United Nations: Resilient mental health has been one crucial factor protecting youth from substance abuse and related disorders.
But having a strong frame of mind takes a lot of courage, and young people need the right support to nurture it along. We are not talking about a healthy mental well-being as a result of someone not suffering from mental illnesses such as depression, schizophrenia, or substance-abuse-related conditions. We are referring to the type of mental well-being that takes things a step further; entailing confidence, motivation, courage, and hope in the face of challenges — to be able to express yourself freely without constraint.
As we keep discovering, there is an increasing volume of scientific literature demonstrating that the human brain — and more particularly so in its young developmental stages — has a very high degree of flexibility and a great capacity for resilience, endurance, empathy, collaboration, and creativity — the more neural connections you can make in your lifetime, the happier you will be. Not only does our brain have that potential to continuously get bigger and better, but we are seeing how, rather than being a trait possessed only by a few exceptional individuals, this is actually our brains’ normal tendency.
How can we help unleash positive potentialities and let the brain do its work? Most inhibitions are related to high levels of stress inflicted by society as well as to negative and discouraging information disseminated by mass media, and, oftentimes, our own educators. Physical exercises, breathing and meditation, positive psychology, and developing growth mindsets — all of these have been proven as useful techniques for regulating stress and emotions, enhancing motivation, and diminishing tension in the brain. These are “soft measures,” which don’t require a lot of funding or specialized technology. With the help of a good mentor, any young person in any corner of the world can do it.
Providing the space for holistic education for our youth will be a good step forward. We can go a long way in making small changes in young people’s mindsets, alterations that will help them stick their heads out of the water and see possibilities despite their hardships. A recent study by the United Nations Industrial Development Organization has demonstrated how, for example, by encouraging young women and men to be involved in agro-based value chains — economies such as cotton, silk, and textiles — new employment and business opportunities can be created.
Rather than migrate long distances to cities where a better life does not always await, these young people from rural areas can become young entrepreneurs. They can create local businesses by processing agricultural resources and developing tourism opportunities, transforming traditional agrarian societies into entrepreneurial societies. Of course, this is not meant to say that every young person in a rural community should follow in this direction. It’s only one such example of how a change in perspective, accompanied by mentorship and encouragement, can have productive results; helping young people find a way to explore new possibilities right at home.
Moving beyond technical or material solutions for today’s youth, what we can offer is the space for them to find their own power within. Then, we can encourage them to use that power and confidence to positively influence their community.
When sustained over time, that resilient, creative mindset builds character and integrity, bringing long-term spillover effects that lead to more motivation and initiative, and more respect for others, the environment, and the Earth.