Global development assistance has something in common with current societal movements: both are heavily focused on youth. Typically, emphasis falls on the potential of the youth boom to either fuel historic prosperity and social progress, or to unleash instability, conflict and violence.

While enabling youth to lead positive societal change and reach their potential is critical, this approach is often overly simplistic. It treats youth as a monochromatic school of fish that must be guided in the right direction, rather than as a diverse array of populations. Young people are part of many systems, entwined into the fabric of our society. They are also segmented by skills, geography, policy and resources.

Portraying youth as a homogenous group fails to recognize their complexity. It may also be counterproductive to solving - with substantial youth leadership - key global issues such as fragility, lack of meaningful work opportunities, inequity and violence.

Behind the trend lines are a group of changing people
Image: World Bank

To support a prosperous future for people labelled "youth" by development assistance, we must first disband arbitrary age limits, stop singling them out in a belittling fashion, and adequately account for the vastly different challenges that various segments of youth face.

Disband arbitrary age ranges

Policymakers debate who qualifies as "youth", when the distinction isn’t terribly important given that the "youth" population is ever-changing. The UN defines youth as those between 15 and 24. USAID youth-focused programs engage people between 10 and 29. Whatever age definition we use, we must realize that this group is never static. People are always entering it or leaving it to join other age groups. Working with youth is just like working with people: they keep changing.

Labelling people youth, while attempting to empower them, is belittling

There is something patronizing in youth programmes. It is as though we are subtly saying that, like children, youth are coping with behavioural growth, learning, and psychological change and adaptation, and need a paternalistic embrace. Individuals on the early stages of the spectrum that we call youth need parental care and guidance, of course. However, on the later stages of the spectrum, these individuals resemble other age groups in their concern about stability, livelihoods, jobs, dignity, fairness and inclusion.

Account for the power of place

Geography adds a huge layer of variance. The challenges that youth face in the Middle East and Africa bear some similarities, but are so different that generalizing solutions can be counterproductive. For example, the unemployment rate in Egypt is higher for more highly educated youth, while in South Africa highly educated young people have much better employment prospects. It’s virtually meaningless to generalize approaches to education and employment between the two countries.

Despite multiple policy statements that acknowledge profound differences in youth, there is no widely accepted organizing framework that shifts the perspective from seeing youth as a homogenous mass, to thinking about how we address specific challenges and opportunities.

A useful analogy might be the post-communist democracy assistance that swept the former Soviet bloc countries. What started as democracy assistance matured into a framework of discreet programmes that supported free and fair elections, functional political parties, citizen engagement, effective and accountable public institutions, market-friendly economic and fiscal policies, and anti-corruption initiatives, among others.

To be clear, using the lens of "youth" is not entirely fruitless. Identifying issues that disproportionately impact youth and channeling resources to address them is useful, as young people represent the future. But many challenges that disproportionately affect young people, such as unemployment, extremism and gang violence, are not caused by youth. Therefore the solutions require deep engagement with other groups of people.

Creating work opportunities and increasing productivity

Work and productivity, especially as their forms evolve under the relentless pressure of technological change, remain the holy grail of the quest to ensure economic growth and prosperity for younger generations, and to support social welfare plans for ageing populations in developed countries and elsewhere. Productivity is about work and, often, skills. The age dimension is a secondary consideration. For example, take the mismatch between the skills that employers seek and the skills that people in the labour market have. Focusing on building the right skills in youth misses re-skilling older workers who are being replaced by machines. Why separate the two?

Addressing violent extremism

When we talk about extremist youth, we are talking about extremist philosophies, movements and actions. Young people are disproportionately targets of recruitment by extremists, but they aren’t recruited in isolation. Young people are members of communities and a "whole-community" approach is necessary to mobilize against recruitment efforts. We need to focus squarely on diluting extremist rhetoric, preventing conflicts that create a breeding ground for recruiters, encouraging parents and communities to intervene when someone is being lured to violence, and supporting access to economic opportunity.

Confronting gangs

Typically, gangs are mostly comprised of young people. In Central America, for example, most gang members range from 12 to 24. As a group, they have unleashed devastating violence. In 2015, El Salvador claimed the highest murder rate of any country not at war. But gang-organized youth are an outgrowth of violent conflict, political repression, forced migration, narcotics and corruption. The solutions involve a much broader ecosystem than youth themselves, ranging from democracy promotion initiatives that dilute political repression, to anti-corruption initiatives that ensure fairer access to resources, to entrepreneurs who can expand job opportunities.

Tackling displacement

A swelling in international migration has placed stress on many nation states. Even more importantly, it has re-kindled ethnic, religious and racial hatred and biases. This trend has, in part, fuelled a resurgence of populism in these countries. While Asia and Africa remain mostly rural, a relentless population shift toward urban centres continues to put pressure on cities. It is creating habitats in which governmental services are poor or non-existent, health and security are weak, and non-state actors compete with or eclipse governments. Large segments of migrants and newly urbanized populations are young. They need new skills, meaningful work and the hope that comes with inclusive communities and fair institutions.

When we talk about youth development, youth is as unique as the issue we’re trying to resolve, and the context in which it occurs. We need an issue-focused approach, in which youth is not labelled indiscriminately, but seen as people with a specific problem they need to solve. Youth are a key piece of the puzzle to solve global challenges. But a more effective approach, and the real solution, lies in narrowing in on the problems that affect them and forging specific, contextualized solutions to those problems.

While attention on young people is welcome, we do not need to create new narratives or reinvent taxonomies. Strengthening the governance systems of the environments in which young people live, including fair distribution and management of public resources such as money, minerals, land, water, and government services; public institutions that are responsive to the citizenry; access to economic opportunity; free flow of credible information; and just mechanisms for addressing grievances, remains the most effective framework for addressing the problems that young people face.