21st Century Skills to Empower Youth and Tackle Covid-19 Crisis

Equipping young minds with tools that enable them to be agents of change and drivers of progress

July 15, 2021

By Sneha Pathak

A youth volunteer speaking at a Youth Co:Lab meet in New Delhi, India. Photo: UNDP India

Over the past few years, we have all been talking about how 21st century skills can make the youth more empowered economically. These skills come under different guises, such as traditional soft skills, the more modern transferable skills for the Future of Work or more specifically, employability skills. But all these umbrella terms stand on the firm understanding of equipping young minds with the tools to ensure that they can grapple with uncertainties and disruptions of the present day and that of the future.

So how do these skills stack up against the ongoing COVID-19 crisis? One of the biggest disruptions globally in the past few decades, the pandemic, and its subsequent economic and livelihood crises, are here to stay for a while. The crisis is leading to grave short and long-term repercussions, some that may be invisible to the bare eye. Impact on mental health is one of them. While isolation, quarantine, lockdowns and ‘Work from Home’ are exacerbating underlying disorders like depression and anxiety, they are also leading to what psychologists call “languishing”.

Languishing perpetuates a sense of stagnation, making drive, motivation or even concentration, elusive. It is seemingly more common than depression and affects your day-to-day functionality. Adapting to the ‘new normal’ brought in by the pandemic and juggling the fear and worry about us or our family members contracting the disease is challenging. As a society in flux, youth need certain skills that will help them navigate their newfound complex realities.

A Movers Workshop on Introduction to UN Sustainable Development Goals and 21st Century Skills held on 18 March at Government Johnson College, Mizoram India. Photo: Michael V L Chhandama, a Mover Mentor

One glimmering light during these tough times is that young individuals are proving they have immense resilience and motivation, along with an innovative mindset and a problem-solving attitude, to find immediate resolutions to help those in need. More connected than ever before, and with systems buckling under the pressure of the crisis, many young people are volunteering to support those who are affected. Overnight, they have risen to the occasion to make meaningful contributions. Young influencers like Kusha Kapila and Dolly Singh have forgone brand advertisements to become one-stop shops for sharing information to combat COVID-19 on their Instagram pages and Twitter handles.

So many of us are amplifying needs and disseminating information through social media. From WhatsApp groups and dynamic resource dashboards to counselling, therapy and 3D oxygen cylinder printing, the youth are doing it all. My own personal and professional groups on WhatsApp are acting as COVID-19 war rooms. Empathy, collaboration, and communication are playing key roles in knowledge sharing and management of fast-depleting resources.

Recognizing the value and currency of these skills, initiatives like ‘Sach Honge Sapne’ are focussing on resource sharing, through webinars to develop this skill set as part of COVID-19 response. They are being brought under the wider arc of 21st century skills that span from critical literacies, such as digital and financial, to critical competencies and qualities like creativity, decision making, resilience, empathy, communication, etc. 

A Movers Workshop on Introduction to UN Sustainable Development Goals and 21st Century Skills held on 18 March at Government Johnson College, Mizoram India. Photo: Michael V L Chhandama, a Mover Mentor

Since 2015, UNDP has been working consistently on building these skills among the youth. Project Disha, supported by the IKEA Foundation, focussed on revamping government employment exchanges as Youth Employability Services centres. This stepped beyond connecting young people to training and job opportunities to also cover career guidance and soft skills training. Two Asia-Pacific regional programmes — Youth Co:Lab and Movers — are being implemented in India too. These aim at nurturing youth leadership, innovation, and entrepreneurship as essential skills and mindsets required for young people to be agents of change and lead sustainable development.

A promising framework being developed with support from SAP Labs India will further provide a comprehensive skills toolkit and curriculum for the youth as an open source. It will be made available to all through multiple learning platforms in English and a few regional languages.

Key stakeholder partnerships and concerted collaborations are vital to propagate these skills. Generation Unlimited, a coalition for youth development led by UNICEF, with UNDP as a partner, is working on building a stronger and streamlined agenda and interventions for skills for youth. The Central government and some state governments are increasingly becoming cognizant of the need for 21st century skills. The New Education Policy of the Government of India aims to secure holistic development of learners through these skills.

But effective youth skills development programmes are required so that young people are not mere beneficiaries of developmental progress but are the drivers of that progress, leading India into a future that ‘Leaves No One Behind’.

Sneha Pathak is Programmes and Partnerships (Youth) Officer at UNDP India