International Youth Day: A role for ‘youth’ for a sustainable world?

Published on 12 August 2016

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Justin Flynn

Research Officer & Postgraduate Researcher

The “youth employment crisis” is very much a reality. Southern Europe and Sub-Saharan Africa come to mind immediately, but the issue is global. Half of the world’s population is under the age of 30, and young people aged 15-24 are three times as likely to be unemployed than older adults (pdf). Interesting, then, that the theme of International Youth Day today is ‘The Road to 2030: Eradicating Poverty and Achieving Sustainable Consumption and Production’.

The theme of International Youth Day suggests that policymakers see a potential solution to problems around poverty and sustainability by paying more attention to youth. However, is this focus the right one and what role should youth have in achieving sustainable consumption and production practices?

Exploring different sides of youth

Recent research from IDS on work for young people, particularly in rural areas, has asked prickly questions that challenge some common assumptions about “youth” as a category. Overall, for effective programming, we find not enough is known yet about young people’s aspirations regarding farming, particularly in a time of food price volatility, and what constitutes desirable work for rural youth.

Programmes engaging with young people need to be realistic and context-specific as highlighted by this work on young people, agriculture, and employment in Africa (pdf). The role of education for young people, for instance in pastoral communities (pdf), is also a tricky area – can education build resilience, as is hoped, and is the curriculum relevant to the context? Work at IDS also finds that the increasing focus in many programmes on financial inclusion and entrepreneurship faces a reality of very heterogeneous needs and savings behaviours among members of youth savings groups.

Indeed, one major reason why policymakers have turned their attention to youth employment is out of fear; the hope is to defuse the frustrations and violence which many suspect that protracted unemployment among youth can trigger. Therefore, the politics of youth often enough is the politics of keeping them busy, as my colleague Marjoke Oosterom argued.

As is evident through much of IDS’ work on youth, there are a different set of characteristics to consider in rural areas to urban spaces, and dynamics around unemployment may well differ. Youth also move between these spaces, and spaces themselves change. At IDS when we look at youth in urban areas, we’ve tended to ask questions about citizenship, politics and violence, whereas the focus has been much more on the agricultural in our rural work – though both are not mutually exclusive.

Young lives, sustainable lives?

One thing that transcends rural/urban or other contexts is the need to transform both consumption and production (as well as distribution) of food (pdf), and this is at the core of International Youth Day. According to Professor Tim Lang at City University London’s Centre for Food Policy, a sustainable diet in the twenty-first century ‘is one which is healthy, environmentally low-impact, culturally appropriate and economically viable’. Lang argues that ‘extensive change is needed to consumer behaviour and aspirations yet current policy initiatives are still tip-toeing around consumer choice’. However, when he spoke last February at the School of Global Studies of the University of Sussex, he broadened this idea to promoting a change in culture around consumption.

This is where youth can come in. Younger people are generally more open to change than older people – economically, socially, and culturally – and often act as drivers of change. For instance, people tend to become vegans before the age of 25 (a finding from the USA and the UK), in part a reaction to calls for reducing consumption of meat and animal products. Young people embody the chance for cultural change in diets. So, as the idea of sustainable consumption gradually takes hold, at least in some parts of the world, young people are likely to be at the forefront.

However, linking sustainable production to youth is perhaps more difficult, particularly regarding young people in developing countries, who for example, represent the bulk of smallholder (pdf) farmers in Africa. According to Olivier De Schutter, former UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, ultimately the rebuilding of local and sustainable food systems ‘depends fundamentally on the reform of food systems in rich countries (pdf)’, including both their consumption and production patterns. The inability of smallholders to compete with highly subsidised imports from rich countries is one of the major reasons they are relegated to farming offering little more than subsistence. Rather, the former UN Special Rapporteur calls for a food system based on food sovereignty, which he says represents a ‘condition’ for access to sustainable food, and advocates the shift to agroecological modes of production (pdf).

This year’s International Youth Day sets out an ambitious vision with the idea that youth can be key to eradicating poverty and achieving sustainability – an attractive suggestion. However, not only do we need to understand the widely differing contexts that youth live in, we also have to realise the complexities of our food systems if we are to achieve sustainable consumption and production. The inclusion of young people in the necessary reform of food production cannot simply be an ad hoc process, it requires deep thinking, and, most likely, serious research.

Visit to Greenhouse Youth Group with Grand plans through the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS)


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