We are living in an age increasingly dominated by youth. Today, some 16 percent of the population worldwide--over one billion people--are between the ages of 15 and 24. In some emerging economies, this share is even higher--in Latin America, for instance, youth make up 20 percent of the population, totaling nearly 106 million people.
Yet it is precisely this age group that confronts the most challenging transition from school to work. This is the so-called "skills gap" between what they have learned and what the job market demands of them. From high school dropouts to college graduates, young people in almost every country are finding that they lack the skills to navigate the modern global economy.
While this skills gap is much discussed, there is less conversation about concrete solutions. Nor is there much specific understanding about what these young adults are thinking--their aspirations and visions for their own careers, and why they make the choices they do. At education conferences, think tank panels, and university debates, the youth perspective is missing.
Now, helping to combat this gap in knowledge is a fascinating collaborative project commissioned by the Citi Foundation and conducted by The Economist Intelligence Unit. Their timely report, Accelerating Pathways: Global Youth Survey 2015, surveys more than 5,000 young people in 35 cities around the world in order to determine what these age cohorts "desire, expect, and contribute" from their education and communities.
Released alongside this survey was the Youth Economic Strategy (YES) Index, which seeks to measure how those same 35 cities rank in helping their young workers get ahead. The index is based on 31 indicators, both quantitative and qualitative. Mostly city-based, it offers a robust and comprehensive look at youth-focused policies around the world.
"As the world becomes more urban, global and digital, city leaders have an opportunity to develop new ways to catalyze economic growth and foster a better quality of life for all their citizens," said Brandee McHale, President of the Citi Foundation. "Investing in youth is critical to ensuring the economic resiliency and long term competitiveness of cities, but is often overlooked. We hope this research strengthens and guides the discussion about programs and policies that can best support young people's contribution to sustainable cities now and in the future."
Those indicators are grouped in four major categories: Government Support and Institutional Framework for Youth; Employment and Entrepreneurship; Education and Training; and Human and Social Capital. Included in the analysis is everything from a city's GDP growth and local government policy to levels of youth engagement and even the amount of parkland available for recreation. (Toronto, New York, and Chicago come out on top in the overall ranking.)
Some of the survey's most interesting findings relate to the things young people actually value--which turn out to be more practical concerns than what traditional educational institutions usually provide. "[Youth in these cities] value technology and seek online learning, and believe internships and apprenticeships best pave the way to improving earning power," the report finds.
Specifically, 62 percent of the youth surveyed said that computer skills and foreign language proficiency are important for raising income. This is consistent with research showing that current forms of education--including college--are often not enough, and that training in more practical skills is needed. Still, actual progress on this front is another matter: for all the buzz around online learning, only 10 percent of students are using the internet to advance their education. Latin America is also pursuing non-traditional education as well: in Bogota and Lima, a third of respondents are opting for vocational schools after high school.
The current generation's optimism and focus on entrepreneurship is also noteworthy. "[Today's youth] are open and enthusiastic about working for themselves or founding a business," the report concludes. Latin America again stands out, for having the highest portion of youth--89 percent--who want to start their own business. To harness this entrepreneurial spirit in the region, a different indicator examined by the study will need to be addressed: ease of opening a new business.
While this data is interesting in and of itself, ideally it will also be able to help us define and prioritize the most effective policies. In this sense, we still need a better sense of how local policies are being implemented and received, and the study offers some interesting best practices from cities around the world and can serve as a platform for debate among all relevant stakeholders. We are seeing disillusionment with big institutions among this generation, a broader distrust of both corporations and centralized federal bureaucracies. Is this also the case with city governments, and if so, how can local officials better connect with young professionals and give them the tools to succeed?
As Carnegie's Moises Naim describes in his theory of the "End of Power," the old top-down, centralized solutions are increasingly ineffective in today's world. The skills gap is a widespread problem, but the solutions to it will likely be local, diverse, and community-driven. Thus efforts like Accelerating Pathways, which is hopefully just a start, will be invaluable in helping us to better understand how different cities, countries, and regions are approaching the challenge.