4 Reasons to Be Optimistic About the 2030 UN Agenda

If you are concerned, as I am, about the well-being of today's young people, and wonder what it will take to create a better future for them and their children, then here's some positive news. On September 25, the United Nations and its 193 member countries will formally adopt the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, an unprecedented to-do list of goals and strategies that aim to eliminate extreme poverty worldwide over the next 15 years. Many of those action steps relate to expanding economic and civic opportunities for youth.

The 2030 agenda seeks to reach a monumental set of goals. Some may say too many, having gone from the basic eight Millennium Development Goals announced in 2000 to the new 17 goals and 169 associated targets. And yes, I might have wished that YOUTH as a concept and even as a word had appeared more frequently in the draft plan. But most importantly, this global agenda reflects the world's demographic reality: youth currently make up the largest percentage of the population in human history. To indeed defeat extreme poverty, we must ensure that today's 1.8 billion young people have the education, training, and jobs they need to succeed in the 21st century. Moreover, if we can open the doors of opportunity to this huge youth cohort, we will reap extraordinary dividends in the years to come.

Here are a few key components of the 2030 agenda that will boost our collective efforts in the youth development field:

  • Goal 1 aims to "end poverty in all of its forms everywhere" by 2030 by providing all citizens -- regardless of age -- equal access to economic resources, basic services, property ownership, IT training, and financial services, including micro-finance.
  • Goal 4 promotes "inclusive and quality education and lifelong learning opportunities for all" and goes beyond guaranteeing free primary and secondary education to demand that a far higher percentage of young people gain relevant technical and vocational skills so they can earn their futures.
  • Goal 5 commits countries to ending discrimination against women and girls and ensuring their economic empowerment -- a longtime focus of my organization's work.
  • Goal 8, which calls for "sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, with full and productive employment and decent work for all," demands that countries, by 2020 (they can't and shouldn't wait until 2030), must "substantially reduce the proportion of youth not in employment, education or training" (or NEET) -- another core priority among youth advocates.

Today, as many as half a billion young men and women are out of school and out of work. Taken together, these 2030 goals promote the necessary policies and scalable actions needed to solve the global youth employment crisis. If we can't close this education and jobs skills training gap, then young people will be unable to work their way out of poverty and join the middle class, and our efforts to grow an inclusive and vibrant world economy will be in vain.

My point here is simple. To meet the agenda's goals in the next 15 years, today's young people must either be in decent, stable jobs; in school; or enrolled in a job training program now or very soon. By 2030, those who today are in their teens and early twenties will by then be in their 30s--and will need to be productive, tax-paying citizens who can support their families and be civically engaged in their communities. Moreover, their sons and daughters, who will be seeking to join the workforce in 2030, will need even greater educational, training and employment opportunities than their parents simply to keep pace in an increasingly competitive marketplace. These two generations will make up the 21st century workforce, as the children of today's youth will need to work and earn until roughly 2090.

However, this multi-generational and possibly virtuous cycle of economic productivity, financial independence, and civic empowerment must start now if we are to have a chance of reducing, let alone eradicating, world poverty.

Reaching these sustainable development goals is hugely challenging given the world's recent economic downturn, rising inequalities, and the growing numbers of young people who feel disaffected, disconnected and powerless. Yet I am guardedly optimistic. Here's why:

  1. The 2030 agenda calls for strengthening and revitalizing multi-sector partnerships with a focus on local capacity building, which is the only way to leverage sufficient resources to truly scale up proven youth development programs.
  2. It recognizes that sharing knowledge, expertise, and technology will help all of us learn from our shortcomings, promote sound policies, and have greater impact.
  3. It provides a global platform for today's leaders, including actively involved young people, to keep countries accountable for results and more intentional about improving young people's long-term prospects.
  4. And finally, I'm optimistic because years of experience in youth development have made clear to me that through the right policies, partnerships, and resources, we can make real and sustainable improvements in young people's lives. Look at the growing success of New Employment Opportunities (NEO), a regional initiative launched in 2012 to prepare a million young people across Latin America for jobs within the next decade. Its key to success? The Multilateral Investment Fund (MIF), along with global and local companies, governments, and NGOs, are working together for systemic change. Another global initiative called Solutions for Youth Employment (S4YE) is a multi-stakeholder alliance recently launched by the World Bank, major corporations, and a number of NGOs, including the International Youth Foundation, all committed to promoting scalable employment strategies.

To make progress, these collaborative and strategic approaches must be the model, not the exception.

If we can foster a youth-centered focus on our sustainable development work, then in 2030 we will be far closer to residing in a more equitable, stable, and livable world than we are today. And as a result the world's young people will finally be the engines of growth and transformation that they are so spectacularly capable of becoming.