I recently met Max Samale, a young entrepreneur, at a metal workshop just outside Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Max didn’t finish secondary school but with the right training and support he has been able to set up a successful small business. A certificate of registration hangs on the wall. His is a formal enterprise, and it now employs other young people from the local area.

He is engaging, ambitious and representative of a generation of young people who want to make their own way in life. He told me that hard work pays and that he’d like to use his workshop to help other young Tanzanians learn skills and a trade.

Wherever I travel I am struck by the energy, commitment and desire to work of the young people I meet. They see a job not just as a means to live but something fundamental that helps them to contribute to their communities.

Whether in Dar es Salaam, Beijing, Lima, Lisbon or Washington, young people want to work. They should be the world’s engine of innovation and growth, yet their potential too often goes unrealized through lack of opportunity.

There are over 74 million young people unemployed worldwide and more than 200 million young women and men are working poor, living on less than $2 a day. The impact on families’ finances, young people’s self-esteem and potential future earnings is immense.

In industrialized countries, many young people have given up looking for a job altogether, or have lowered their expectations to settle for any job they can find. In addition, more and more young people are stuck with part-time or temporary contracts.

Whereas their parents’ generation expected to do better than their own parents, secure jobs and a stable career path are distant dreams for too many of today’s youth.

In developing countries, official employment numbers often don’t tell the full story. Many of those who are employed work in irregular, poor-quality, low-wage jobs, frequently in the informal economy. Some are neither in employment, education or training (NEETs). Progress made on poverty reduction during the last decade is in danger of receding.

There are millions of so called “NEETs” globally and there is a real risk of a socially excluded generation that is left out of the job market altogether.

This is not simply a problem for the young; this is a millennial crisis with implications across all societies. A generation not reaching their potential is a wholesale waste of talent that will impact on future economic growth. It may lead to increased social unrest in some countries that could spill over into the political arena.

This is not something any country can afford to ignore.

So how do we ensure more young people can take control of their lives like Max in Tanzania? How can the public and private sectors work together to tackle this challenge?

First we need economic and labour policies that increase demand through investment, higher wages, stronger social protection systems and improved access to credit for small and medium businesses.

Entrepreneurship should be promoted in combination with business skills training, support services and access to finance.

Well-designed education and training systems are needed that respond to labour market needs, and equip a young workforce for the jobs of tomorrow.

We need to expand the emerging system of quality apprenticeships and internships with pay to help combine classroom learning with experience in the workplace.

In addition, employment guarantee schemes have proven effective in helping young people find jobs. These are often more successful when combined with social protection measures such as transport allowances, childcare grants or housing assistance.

Finally, labour rights must be upheld and enforced to protect young workers, particularly those vulnerable to abuses.

A challenge of the scale we face requires a coordinated response by the public and private sectors and the approach outlined is not only effective, it is affordable. The European Union recently adopted an early employment intervention scheme for young people, which has an average cost estimate of between 0.5% to 1% of gross domestic product.

Improvements cannot wait for those luckier to be entering the labour market as economies recover. Policy-makers and business leaders must take urgent action to ensure unemployed young people have the chance to play their full role in society.

Watch the Davos session on The Millennial Challenge here.

The World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Employment published two reports during the Annual Meeting 2014: Matching Skills and Labour Market Needs and Unemployment: Rising to the Global Challenge.

Author: Guy Ryder is Director-General of the International Labour Organization and is participating at the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting 2014 in Davos.

Image: Geography student George Boukouvalas, 23, who lost his job at a warehouse 14 months ago and has been unable to find work since, poses for a photograph inside his university in Athens. REUTERS/John Kolesidis