We need to speak about young people. In Uganda, 68 per cent of the population is under 24 years of age, and globally, young people are part of the largest youth population in history. Crucially, this high point is with us for a short time only and how we respond to this demographic phenomenon will shape all of our future. We are in an era of Peak Youth.
So are we on the verge of a catastrophic worsening of the youth unemployment crisis? Or an unprecedented leap forward in economic productivity? Will we have an age of protest and uprisings? Or will young people finally get the hearing they deserve?
All of this is to be decided, but as we celebrate the International Youth Day tomorrow, I am feeling optimistic.
As the country director of Restless Development Uganda, I have seen what can happen when we empower young people to take control of their own lives. Equip them with the correct skills and they will earn a decent living and invest back into the local economy. Enable them with greater space and they will find new solutions to old problems, driving the whole community’s development forward.
Too often, out of fear or misconception, we hold young people back from driving the change both they and we all desire. By not listening to young job-hunters, we are failing to address the mismatch between the skills that our formal education system provides and the skills that businesses need. By treating youth representatives as decorations instead of decision-makers, we are slowing down the removal of the barriers that are blocking change.
Young people are not waiting for permission to lead.
As the skills mismatch continues, they are building up their abilities independently through volunteering programmes. Where formal access to decision making is cut-off, they demand change through alternative tactics like campaigning and protests. We have seen this first-hand in Uganda. Just look at our Youth Think-Tank researchers, who last year uncovered the realities of the youth jobs market across East Africa, and some of the best and most interesting ways young people are finding a path to employment.
This is clear evidence that young people are ready for change, and that we need to work harder to equip and enable them to succeed.
So, how do we do it? Well first of all, we need to break out of the idea that young people’s success depends on adults doing things for them.
Of course, there are many things the rest of society can do, but more often than not, the answer is to get out of the way and make room for young people to lead.
Too often, ‘experts’ sit in a room and design programmes aimed to support young people, deliver them to schools and then wonder why their programmes are not having the impact they imagined. The answer is simple: Young people were treated as targets and not partners.
If you want youth programming to be effective, make sure that young people are at the heart of its design, delivery and evaluation too.
They are best placed to know what their needs are and what tactics will work to engage them.
Programming is one thing, but if we are to make real, sustainable impact, we need to think much bigger. We need to look beyond limited programmatic impact and toward societal-wide change.
Young people should not only be at the heart of programme delivery, but also be key influencers and informers.
That means influencing decision-makers in the sense that they have access to the spaces where power lies and are listened to.
But also that they influence decisions directly as power-holders themselves. Young people are continually under-represented in our parliaments, where people aged 20-44 make up 57 per cent of the world’s voters, but just 26 per cent of our representatives.
As was made clear at the recent Commonwealth Youth Ministers’ Meeting in Kampala, Uganda has a great deal to share with the world about advancing youth representation in formal politics. However, Uganda can also do much more to ensure that the voices representing the diversity of young Ugandans infuse discussions about the future - from local to national level.
We also have a huge opportunity to connect young people’s deep knowledge and experiences together in a way which wasn’t possible before.
If the youth are better able to inform each other about their successes and failures, then we can learn fast and speed up the development of entire communities. Increasing digital accessibility makes this prospect even more exciting.
So there are lots of reasons to be inspired by the potential of this Peak Youth generation. Young people are not idle or hopelessly frustrated. They are more active, connected and able than ever before. They are shaping today and creating tomorrow, whether we like it or not. The question is, are we ready to join them?
Mr Lavender is the director for Restless
Development in Uganda.