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It Takes Time - Thoughts On Our Youth Employment Challenge

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Matthew Bird is our current volunteer Challenge Community Advisor. You'll see him popping up across the Youth Employment Challenge with thoughtful insights and handy information; and posting community updates here like a true champion!

It takes time. Just start somewhere.

Those were words someone once spoke to me when, several months following college graduation, I was one of a few classmates who remained unemployed. Still stored in a shoebox are 100 rejection letters and one maybe – a “nothing now, but you can drop by for an interview the next time you’re in town.”

Regardless of your country of origin, generation or upbringing, we’ve all experienced – or are experiencing – that Janus-faced transition called youth. Though our circumstances differ, for many it was – or is – a Dickensian best and worst of times. We had – or have – a sense of expectation, of still having time to do something, even if the odds are long. Yet this sense of hope gets tempered – is getting tempered – as we transition over time into adulthood (though this isn’t a bad thing). When it happens varies. Looking back, Janus-faced, we can trace the moments, those fateful events that brought us to our present, thinking that it does and does not make sense how we got here. We only know that it took time and it started somewhere.

The same applies to this challenge. Having had the honor of serving as a Challenge Community Advisor for the Youth Employment Challenge, the range of experiences and solutions unearthed so far are impressive in their range and complexity. Tacking back and forth between the personal stories, the success stories, the new lenses, and the surprises, one feels like a youth again, with excitement over the possibilities and confusion about the reality we think we can shape. 

Yet if we distill the contributions – take stock, Janus-faced, midway through our research phase – critical insights begin to take shape. We’ve all created them. We can trace the moments. The list below is not original. Rather it is the mechanical work of an insight (as opposed to content) aggregator.

Youth as part of the whole – Youth is transition. It bridges childhood and adulthood. As such, to understand the nature of the challenge, it helps to understand what part youth plays demographically, economically, and culturally in the societal whole. The youth bulge in the Middle East is different from the dearth of youth in an aging Japan. The challenge faced by youth in Spain, with near 60% unemployment is distinct from that across the Strait of Gibraltar where informal economies dominate.

Links in the pathway – If youth is transition – a stage linking the before and after – then what does that pathway look like? How is it different for a college graduate moving from internship to internship compared to a youth from a disadvantaged background inventing a new job? What are the links in the pathway for a high school educated youth in the Jordan compared to a high school educated youth in Peru?  Think of the critical links between hard skills acquisition, soft communication and self-presentation skills, psychosocial readiness, a first job, and something as simple as geographic mobility, i.e., living – or moving – to where the opportunities are. 

No one size fits all – The basic links in the pathway may be similar but no one size fits all. “Entrepreneurship!” clamor some. “Skills!” write others. Use mentors! Use technology! But when is entrepreneurship better and when skills? What kind of mentors and technologies? Numerous contributors have highlighted the complex nature of the youth unemployment issue. We need many solutions – as our Youth Employment Challenge sponsor, Clinton Global Initiative, has highlighted – and OpenIDEO provides a methodology. But can we go deeper? For example, we’ve highlighted the potential of information and communication technologies. But how are they being used differently (or not) in our examples and what specific information, networking and communication gaps are they filling? How does the filling of one gap differ in India versus the United States, for example? One size may not fit all, but is there a size that fits so many it feels like most? 

Leverage the hidden assets – A common strategy we’ve used is to turn the problem on its head. Redefine it as the solution. Youth may be more media and technological savvy. That’s a skill. Use it. Youth can be artistic. That’s a unique perspective. Use it. Finally, as several have highlighted, maybe our goal of creating more traditional employment is outdated. Being part-time and mobile – whether an intern at a company or self-employed street vendor – could be the new norm and our task is to identify new pathways toward sustainable livelihoods based on part-time, mobile work. Maybe future generations will return to new kinds of nomadic, hunter-gatherer, or foraging lifestyles. 

Empower – Whatever part youths play in the societal whole, pathway is blazed and followed, solution is chosen, and assets are leveraged, a common, necessary prerequisite remains. You(th) must believe that you(th) can do it. We must have the confidence, the creative confidence – body language matters, our tone of voice matters, and our mental fortitude matters. Whether you’re a middle class citizen protesting a repressive regime in the Middle East, a young rural female healthcare provider phoning a Mumbai call center to help diagnose a village member, or a college intern sitting down for your eighth interview, you must believe in yourself. 

And we the contributors must believe – Janus-faced – that halfway into our research phase that we’re on the right track. The problem is complex. The pathway isn’t clear. But we’re doing it better, together, or trying to. It takes time, and we’ve already started.


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