Our Perspectives


Youth: not simply human beings, but human becomings

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youth in ZambiaZambian youth at a UNDP consultation. Investment in youth and their input is crucial to long-term and sustainable development. Photo: UNDP Zambia

In recent years, perhaps no demographic of society has been better reported on than young people. Why has there been so much human development interest?

There are, I believe, at least 3 reasons:

  1. Human development is, by definition, forward looking. I remember a professor remarking that she preferred to think of the young not simply as human beings, but as human becomings. Last year’s Human Development Report (HDR) considered how people’s vulnerabilities change over their lives and showed how disadvantage early in life creates gaps that worsen over a lifetime. Disadvantaged children are on track to become the youths who do poorly in school or drop out. In the workplace, they perform the most menial work and earn the lowest wages. And when these young people have children, a cycle of inherited poverty begins and is repeated across generations.

    Moreover, youth is a time for transition: from childhood to adulthood, from school to work. But transition points are, as the 2014 HDR argued, particularly vulnerable moments: setbacks here can be especially difficult to overcome and can scar a young person’s chances for a better life.  “Multiple vulnerabilities, stemming from poverty, inequality, social exclusion and hazardous environments, reinforce and overlap with one another, constraining the development and well-being of young people.”

    For instance, the 2014 HDR asked why government spending on different age groups so often is out of line with people’s physical development? Brain growth is extremely rapid during the earliest years and then tends to flatten, while public expenditure is lowest in these early years and rises thereafter. Spending on health, education and welfare does not, the report argued, nurture and support development during the crucial early years.

  2. Demographically, the fate of young people is tremendously important to human development. Not only do the world’s youth (15-24 year old) represent almost a fifth of the planet’s population, but they are predominant in the south: some 85% of young people today are in developing countries and in many places, young people still don’t have access to basic education, reproductive health services, and employment opportunities.

  3. Many development policies have an impact best understood over the longer term. In other words, today’s policies are often most likely to affect the adults of tomorrow. Voice and participation are a key part of the human development approach and important for long term policy making. It is vital for human development that young people are given a voice in the development processes that are seeking to shape the worlds they live (and will live) in.

    Several National HDRs have focused on youth in recent years and have been successful in engaging young people, often in innovative ways.

    For the 2008 NHDR “Youth in Turkey”, 3,000 youth took part in a survey, and twenty eight focus groups were organized. The report was particularly influential, generating more than a thousand news reports that placed youth issues on the national agenda. Some of the participating youth NGOs established a platform to advocate for a youth policy. Turkey’s first ever Youth Ministry was introduced by the government a few years later.

It is important to remember that considering development from a youth perspective is not always straightforward. Even defining exactly when someone should be considered “young” can be tricky and varies between reports.

Listening to the views of young people will almost certainly require an investment of time and money, so development policies that are formulated with the input of young people will cost more to develop. But those policies will almost certainly work better and last longer, as today’s youth will be tomorrow’s leaders.

A version of this blog was original published on UNDP’s Human Development Report blog.

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