STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) is a buzzword for economic development and growth, frequently touted as a many-fold solution to prepare young people for employment, support the national workforce, and promote innovation and explore methods for accelerating future development.

But is STEM education really the silver bullet? Does it truly boost economic growth and support the nation’s workforce? And is STEM the best way to equip young people with the skills, knowledge and opportunities to ensure they can be capable and responsible citizens?

I believe that focusing solely on STEM presents a one-dimensional “fix” which fails to consider the many other factors that influence economic growth and development from context to context.

Instead, a holistic approach is needed to equip the future workforce and secure economic development for emerging and modern economies alike. To adequately invest in the future, the creation of a generation of economic citizens is key to boosting economic growth and breaking ongoing cycles of poverty.

Putting all our egg(head)s in one basket

Although there are many opportunities and benefits linked to a solid STEM infrastructure and development of skills within a country, the current emphasis placed on investment in this sector pays little regard to the limitations resulting from a reliance on this subject area.

In addition, STEM offers only a one-dimensional solution, which is inadequate for the multi-dimensional reality of economic development and growth. Rapidly changing technologies and global competition make it very difficult to predict occupational needs. While there is a need for scientific and technological knowledge in all countries, it has been suggested that there is not as big a shortage of STEM-related workers as previously thought. In addition, too much focus on STEM alone runs the risk of over-saturating certain sectors rather than producing a well-rounded workforce.

There continues to be heavy emphasis on supporting STEM education as an answer to contributing to educational opportunities, strengthening the national workforce and supporting the economy for both emerging and developed economies. However, focusing on STEM is not enough. Educating young people in these subject areas may ensure they are experts on specific topics, but it does not necessarily create conscientious citizens who are capable of making responsible social and financial decisions.

Fail Gubaidulin, an engineer-physicist and a member of the
Image: REUTERS/Ilya Naymushin

If we look to the recent financial crisis, lax monetary policies and inadequate corporate governance, which contributed to the global recession, were exacerbated by poor assessment of risks and a lack of regulatory transparency. This suggests a deficiency in responsible decision-making rather than a lack of expert subject knowledge – and while most of today’s youth will not deal directly with macroeconomic issues, every citizen contributes to the social and economic wellbeing of their country.

So, what’s the answer? Making sure all young people receive the education and training to become responsible economic citizens is key to securing future economic stability.

Presenting a comprehensive solution for empowering youth

A holistic approach to educating and equipping young people with knowledge and skills presents a more comprehensive solution than relying on a one-sided focus like STEM education.

Child and Youth Finance International promotes a model of economic citizenship, where economic and civic engagement promotes sustainable livelihoods, sustainable economic and financial well-being, a reduction in poverty and rights for self and others.

Economic citizenship consists of three key elements: financial inclusion, financial education and social and livelihoods education. These building blocks of economic citizenship compliment the idea of financial inclusion with a focus on education and create a more holistic approach.

To ensure a well-rounded workforce, young people must be provided with a comprehensive social, financial and livelihoods education and have the opportunity to develop a range of skills. UNICEF highlights that the importance of financial, social and livelihoods education has become increasingly discussed by a range of sectors and notes that it is becoming more important for young people to become competent and confident in achieving results to the best of their abilities.

Combining livelihoods education with financial and social education and financial inclusion provides young people with the skills and knowledge they need to be responsible, capable citizens. Ensuring education is supported with economic and civic engagement can help nations fill the gaps resulting from a singular focus on these subjects and offer a holistic approach to addressing a range of social, economic and developmental issues for countries around the world.

It is crucial that we adequately support the employees of tomorrow to prevent financial crises and support future economic stability. Aflatoun International found that, within their primary school programme, 91% of children had positive savings attitudes after participating in social and financial education. The research noted the benefits of early-age intervention and noted the success of social and financial education programmes, which are taught in a holistic manner.

In addition to social, financial and livelihoods education, nations must work towards enhancing the skill-sets of young people entering the workforce – the OECD notes that “many education systems increasingly recognize the importance of developing students’ skills and understanding for tomorrow’s innovation societies”.

In addition to avoiding a narrow and potentially incorrect forecast which comes with investing heavily in STEM subjects, providing young people with a multi-faceted education, skill development and access to services can offer enhanced opportunities, as companies often prefer strong basics to narrow expertise.

Alongside the jobs they hold, children and youth represent the future economic actors that will influence the future of local and global economies through their financial decisions. A holistic approach is key to allowing children and youth to become more aware, empowered, responsible and integrated into the socio-economic life of their community.

By promoting economic citizenship for youth, combining livelihoods education with social education, financial education and financial inclusion should be considered a long-term strategy for sustainable youth development, and one that can fit within the framework of the 2030 Development Agenda.

Offering a comprehensive opportunity to nations can enable them to cater to the needs of their young people – enhancing financial literacy, teaching about social responsibilities and rights, or providing youth-friendly banking products and services, where necessary. This, combined with investment in livelihoods education and skills, can truly support the development of education systems, the creation of jobs and the future stability of economies worldwide.

Investing in STEM is not enough, but adequately investing in the needs and capabilities of our young people presents a real solution and the chance to create a sustainable future. By promoting economic citizenship for young people, we can get to the root of the problem.