Published on Jobs and Development

A tale of twin demographics: Youth in cities

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60% of urban populations will be under the age of 18 by 2030.  How can we harness youth potential as a growth engine for cities? Photo: Arne Hoel/ World Bank

This week thousands of policy-makers, experts, NGOs and urban-minded citizens of all stripes are convening in Quito, Ecuador to discuss the New Urban Agenda at Habitat III – a significant global convening that occurs every 20 years. And, in a couple weeks, amid the costumes and candy, ghosts and goblins of Halloween, the world will mark UN World Cities Day on October 31st. For good reason, youth are part of the conversation.  In today’s global landscape, two demographic patterns should stand out:  rapid urbanization and large youth populations.  These patterns are especially robust across developing nations.  Already the worlds’ cities host half of its citizens, and Asia and Africa are expected to account for 90% of urban growth. While growing, cities have also become younger – many of the world’s nearly four billion people under the age of 30 live in urban areas, and according to UN-HABITAT, it is estimated that 60% of urban populations will be under the age of 18 by 2030.

This year’s theme, “Inclusive Cities, Shared Development” spotlights the important role urbanization can play in promoting growth and new forms of social inclusion, including greater equality, access to services and new opportunities, and engagement and mobilization that reflects the diversity of cities, countries and the globe. At the same time, however, this is not always the shape of urban development, and especially not for younger citizens. Inequality and exclusion are widespread, often at rates greater than the national average, at the expense of sustainable development that delivers for all. Indeed, more than two thirds of the world’s population live in cities in which income inequalities have increased since 1980.

Throughout history, cities have been drivers of economic growth and have served as a magnet for investment and migration. Though cities vary in size and character, the concentration of people, business, and services in urban areas generally allows for increased commerce, ideas and innovation. Today however, many cities struggle to absorb, provide services to, and harness the power of their young and rapidly growing populations. At the same time, as highlighted in Toward Solutions for Youth Employment A 2015 Baseline Report, today’s youth are having a harder time finding jobs and achieving economic independence then generations before them. They are up to four times more likely to be unemployed than adults, and are 20 percent less likely to have a bank account or access to loans.

While the economic paths of urban youth may be very different from their less metropolitan peers, the destinations they hope to reach are likely similar: decent work; the ability to start, sustain and grow a business; and the capacity to build and protect financial assets and save for the future.
Yet, while there is no doubt that the global economic and demographic landscape warrants an increased understanding of how cities can be more youth inclusive of and promote economic opportunities among their younger inhabitants, the body of research and analysis of youth economics with an urban lens or of urban issues through a youth lens is weak.  As a result, programs and policies targeting young people in cities may not be as effective and thus the growth and sustainability of cities undermined. 

In the baseline report, the coalition on Solutions for Youth Employment (S4YE) took steps to fill this gap by exposing the dynamics of the youth-urban-employment nexus such as informality, distinct educational constraints, structural factors of urban economies, migration, crime gangs and illicit economies, and infrastructure.  To support youth in cities, a number of promising interventions being implemented by S4YE partners to better prepare youth to thrive in urban economies. Including for example, an effort from International Youth Foundation (IYF) in Chihuahua city, Mexico to train youth for jobs in a burgeoning aerospace industry; while across six countries, Rockefeller’s Digital Jobs Africa initiative is seeking to create a cadre of youth poised to succeed in the increasing information and technology (ICT)-driven labor markets of Africa. In Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, the World Bank established a Youth Jobs Corps and is working with local training institutions and municipal institutions to equip and employ the National Capital District’s large youth population. The International Labour Organization (ILO) is working to bridge urban-rural youth employment and infrastructure gaps in Kenya by empowering them with skills to secure work in road construction, rehabilitation and maintenance. In Chengdu, China, Plan International is working with multinational industry to ensure the growing city’s youth, especially young rural migrants, are ready to capitalize on the new opportunities presented by this expanding demand.

In advancing a New Urban Agenda that works for youth, S4YE and the broader community of those funding, designing and implementing economic empowerment programs for urban youth might also draw upon resources such as Cities of Opportunity: Drivers and Priorities for Urban Youth Economic Inclusion which takes seven – often mutually reinforcing - drivers of youth economic opportunity in cities as a departure point, analyzes them alongside foundational principles for urban development and positive youth development and draws upon insights from many stakeholders (including a number of S4YE partners).  The resulting framework comprises six priorities with illustrative programmatic elements that could be considered when conceiving programs to support employment, entrepreneurship among youth in cities. These include: leverage density, consider and address Informality, promote economic integration and inclusion, activate multi stakeholder partnerships, align skills to market demand, strengthen networks.

By better understanding and focusing on the urban drivers of economic opportunity and emerging best practices that equip youth with the skills and resources to succeed, practitioners, policymakers, donors and youth can co-create effective initiatives that build truly inclusive cities; cities that will unleash the potential of youth today and tomorrow.
Follow the World Bank Job's group on Twitter @wbg_jobs


Nicole Goldin

Consultant, World Bank Education Global Practice and MENA Team

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