Governments should invest in education and health care for young people to confront a growing youth unemployment crisis and improve living standards worldwide, a new United Nations report says.

The number of young people has reached a record high of 1.8 billion, the UN Population Fund says, and is expected to keep growing. Its latest report calls on policy makers, particularly in low-income countries, to invest more in the young to ensure they become an asset – and not a burden – as their numbers continue to swell.

The report, titled The Power of 1.8 Billion, argues that the burgeoning number of working-age youth has the potential to contribute to rapid economic growth in many developing nations.

However, it highlights a number of obstacles that make it more difficult for the world’s young people to join the work force, ranging from grinding poverty to a lack of education and access to health care.

“Never before have there been so many young people. Never again is there likely to be such potential for economic and social progress,” Population Fund head Babatunde Osotimehin wrote in the report’s foreword.

“How we meet the needs and aspirations of young people will define our common future.”

While there is evidence that governments are paying more attention to youth needs, it says, job prospects are “often dismal,” leading to a “worsening global youth unemployment crisis.”

As many as 60 per cent of young people in low-income countries are either unemployed and not in school or are working in what the report calls “irregular” jobs.

More than 73 million young people between the ages of 15 and 24 were unemployed in 2013, making up about 36 per cent of the world’s unemployed people, according to the International Labour Organization.

“When considered solely as a monolithic large number, young people may be improperly perceived by some as a drain on the national economy, on households or on health and education systems,” the UN Population Fund report says.

“But, when viewed as a font of untapped or unrealized potential, today’s youth cohort can only be seen as a resource, an asset, a force for economic and social progress and transformation.”

Nonetheless, young people face daunting challenges that make it difficult to achieve that potential.

More than 500 million young people live on less than $2 a day, and millions, many of them girls, lack access to good-quality education. Other barriers include human-rights abuses and violence and poor access to health care, the report says.

In addition, many young people still have difficulty accessing sexual and reproductive health-care resources, including contraceptives and HIV testing.

“Improved reproductive health and increased access to contraception information and services would offer some of the best hopes for removing the barriers that prevent young people from reaching their full potential and contributing fully to the communities in which they live,” the report says.

Young people who are both healthy and educated are in a better position to join the work force, according to the UN agency, contributing to economic growth and improvements in living standards.

The number of people between the ages of 10 and 24 is expected to reach two billion by the middle of the century. Countries that meet the needs of their youth population during the coming decades will emerge in the second half of the century with better educated and healthier populations, more productive work forces, stronger economies and lower fertility rates, the report says.

Conversely, it argues, countries “that do not attend to youth may see higher fertility rates over time and sustain a higher proportion of young and dependent people.”

OTTAWA — The Globe and Mail
Published Monday, Nov. 17 2014, 10:17 PM EST
Last updated Monday, Nov. 17 2014, 10:17 PM EST