People under the age of 19 make up about 35% of the world’s population. We often think of – though less frequently practice – our responsibilities to young people. Yet we terribly neglect the opportunities we have to learn from them.

They can teach us not only what they need to become the better leaders of tomorrow, but they can also have a significantly positive influence on the world of today.

Before writing this blog, I asked young people from around the world for their thoughts on how they are treated by older generations. Their message was loud and clear. Young people feel they have so much to offer, if only given the chance.

Across the socio-economic spectrum, regardless of religion or ethnicity, almost every young person who wrote to me expressed a longing to be given a voice and the chance to make a difference. We ignore them at our peril.

It should not be the marketers and advertisers who best understand our young people, and therefore shape them most powerfully. Are we recruiting child soldiers, technology addicts and inward-looking members of our own particular flock… or are we opening doors and the way for the peacemakers of the future? As a person of faith, I believe that all of our religious groups would do well to ask themselves this question.

No one doubts that our world – including its religious traditions – requires greater levels of co-operation, dialogue and understanding. But I think we’ve reached a tipping point. These lofty sounding values are no longer merely moral callings, their pursuit no longer a luxury. Rather, they have become fiscal imperatives, pre-requisites for the very survival of our global economic system.

In an increasingly pluralistic world, multicultural competency is necessary for survival. Education must shift from training future producers and consumers of goods to educating peacemakers who excel in building healthy human relationships. This is not wishful thinking. Our economies depend on peace, security and a degree of shared interest and hope that is rapidly wearing thin under a purely economic model of growth. It’s time to swing the pendulum from “preparing youth for adulthood” to “allowing youth to help shape our world.”

In my own Buddhist tradition, we understand that the unblemished innate spirituality inside each person can grow clouded with neglect as the years go by. In other words, we need to see what young people see. They can remind us of our own best vision.

We in the world’s religious communities should seek to offer structures that allow the world’s youth to encounter others with beliefs and practices very different from their own. This is transformative. I have seen first-hand how it fosters not only a greater openness toward the other but also a deeper understanding of one’s own religious truths and traditions.

Knowing the other is an enriching experience. As a Buddhist, my hope is to grasp the truth at the deepest level by seeing things from as many perspectives as I can.

So yes, we need to encourage and support young people in their innate and earnest desire to learn to live together, but we also need to listen to what these young people have to say not just about their own future, but about our present. We need to bring youth into our councils, forums, business meetings, NGO work, religious leadership, boards of education, parliaments and government budget debates. If we but give them a chance to learn from one another and then pause to listen, we will soon be welcoming the prophets, bridge-builders and messengers of peace which our world so desperately needs… not just tomorrow, but today.

Author: Keishi Miyamoto is a Japanese Buddhist leader, President of Arigatou International, Convenor of the Interfaith Council on Ethics Education for Children and the Global Network of Religions for Children. He is also a member of the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on the Role of Faith 2012-2013

Image: Young people in Cambodia are seen clapping their hands REUTERS/Samrang Pring.