The Opportunity Puzzle: Piecing it together for youth to thrive in a changing world

global youth economic opportunities summit

We live in a time of rapid economic, social, and environmental change. No group has a greater stake in the consequences of these global trends than the world’s 1.8 billion young people, the largest youth cohort in history.[1] The majority of today’s youth population—nearly 90 percent—live in developing countries, primarily in Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia.[2]

The increase in today’s youth demographic coincides with another trend: Despite the overall number of people living in extreme poverty fallen in the last decade, wealth is increasingly concentrated among fewer individuals.[3] Yet this imbalance is about more than how wealth is concentrated: It signals where global decision making lies, and who has a say in determining the policies and systems that shape our future.

Young people know this first-hand. Youth in search of opportunity today confront a complex puzzle of promise and obstacle, navigating policies and systems not designed with their future in mind. Unsurprisingly, thousands of youth demonstrators took to the streets last week at Davos and elsewhere demanding urgent, decisive action by world leaders on employment, social and economic inequality, and climate change.

Understanding youth economic opportunity in a changing world

The questions of how and where we invest our resources, and what kind of future we can help young people create, are at the heart of the Youth Economic Opportunities Network (YEO Network) at Making Cents International. For more than a decade, our YEO Network has been a platform for knowledge sharing and collaboration on critical challenges that impact youth economic opportunities.

In 2017, we developed a new learning agenda for the YEO Network and our annual Global Youth Economic Opportunities Summit (GYEO), focused on the changing nature of work for young people in developing countries. We observed a knowledge gap between “future of work” discussions dominated by robots, decentralization of labor, and the gig economy in wealthier regions on the one side, and what we know about livelihood options for young people in some of the poorest areas on the other. We sought to understand what automation and digital disruption mean for a young person’s livelihood in rural Africa, or urban youth in Latin America, or a young refugee in the Middle East.

To answer these questions, we assembled research on global economic trends by the Brookings Institute, the World Economic Forum, and The World Bank, among others, and coupled it with insights from 1000+ youth development practitioners from more than 60 countries who attended the 2017 and 2018 GYEO Summits.

Our key takeaways are:

1. The private sector is a critical partner in helping youth to access economic opportunity

The past decade has seen a growth in the number of youth policies, agendas, and new initiatives aimed at tackling the global youth employment challenge. More recently, these efforts have sought to engage the private sector as a key partner for funding, scale, and impact. In turn, businesses are starting to increase their focus on youth, both through corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives and training and hiring practices that are responding to the growing gap in qualified labor. Indeed, just as many businesses have come to realize the importance of tracking gender inclusion as part of their sustainability strategies, youth should be considered equally important to industry growth and evolution. And, while greater interest in youth by business is positive, what’s needed are practical and youth-inclusive approaches embedded in business strategies that define youth as an essential part of business sustainability and growth—as consumers, suppliers, and a dynamic and valuable labor force worthy of investment.

2. Future skills mean blended skills

The changing nature of work demands an essential combination of skills for entrepreneurs and traditional workers alike, to enable them to continually adapt and learn: science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) skills; digital skills (a blend of STEM skills); socio-emotional skills; and entrepreneurial skills. Problem solving, critical thinking, creativity, communication, negotiation, and the ability to manage time and finances effectively are all critical. Today, we have a better understanding of what these skills are, why they are in demand, and how to measure them. Yet how we teach these skills at the scale and pace needed to meet demand, while ensuring equitable access and quality, remains a challenge. Solving this challenge requires creativity and innovation; the use of virtual reality (VR) technology as a component of work-readiness training is one example. Ultimately, however, scale will depend on whether we can connect existing efforts by improving cooperation among national governments, funders, employers, trainers and educators, and young people.

3. Technology needs a human touch

Technology as a tool to achieve scale at low cost is an attractive idea. Yet limited technological penetration in poorer areas, barriers to access, and low levels of digital literacy among at-risk youth, in particular, mean that major opportunity gaps in the use of technology remain. Take the use of technology as a training tool, for example. We have found that as a stand-alone it cannot sufficiently prepare young people for the changing economy. However, when technology is combined with other approaches, such as hands-on coaching and mentoring, it helps amplify learning and inclusion in important ways. Technological innovation like gaming can also help narrow the gap between labor supply and demand by connecting youth to opportunity, and employers to youth. For companies in search of talent, new technology can help to target, assess, and train talent for their workplaces outside of traditional methods of assessment that can exclude at-risk youth. Whatever the technology, its value for youth is determined by its accessibility (reach and usability) and how it is deployed as one tool in a larger toolbox of interventions.

4. Self-employment is on the rise, but investments in job creation, better conditions, and protections for workers and entrepreneurs alike are needed everywhere

In today’s formal economy, work is more decentralized than ever, with a growing number of workers participating as micro-entrepreneurs. Meanwhile, the informal economy comprises more than half of the global labor force and more than 90 percent of Micro and Small Enterprises (MSEs). Absent sufficient formal sector job creation, young people will continue to seek opportunity in informal settings, or move between formal and informal work throughout their lifetime. We must focus on improving the conditions for all workers, especially for those most vulnerable to exploitation. This means building new support systems and tools to match the changes in the new global economy for those in traditional employment, self-employment, and the informal economy.[4] Alongside new tools, we need serious national policies that promote job creation, and protections for all, not just the few. These same policies should enable – not stifle – youth-led enterprises to start, grow, and thrive; allow those in search of livelihoods to do so safely; and help to create pathways of mobility instead of tightropes of economic insecurity. This sounds like a tall order, yet young people gathered outside the meetings at Davos last week echoed many of these same ideas.

5. A healthy workforce is one of our most critical challenges:

While much emphasis has been placed on the kinds of evolving skills youth need to compete in the changing world of work, no amount of training compensates for unaddressed trauma that can pose barriers to access, the ability to connect with and trust adults, or manage stress on the job. Young people, especially young women and girls, are disproportionately impacted by violence inside and outside the home. According to UNICEF, 20 percent of youth aged 15-17 and living in countries affected by conflict or disaster have never been in a formal classroom, and 40 percent never completed primary school. One-third of youth live in conflict or disaster-affected countries.[5] Research on the health impacts of conflict on young refugees shows symptoms such as feelings of helplessness, shame, embarrassment, and lasting problems in relationships.[6] A growing focus on brain science, trauma, and mental health must be integral to education, work readiness, and on-the-job training for youth. Even without exposure to trauma, young people need the emotional skills to create a happy and prosperous life. These issues also warrant greater attention at the policy level, as they impact the types of services young people and their families require. Simply put, we cannot talk about “the future of work” for youth without addressing the investments needed to support a healthy workforce.

6. The gender parity gap is about more than a gap in pay

Despite recent growth in the number of educated young women and girls – surpassing men and boys in most countries – gender gaps in the workforce and labor market segregation by gender have remained. The global economy is increasingly geared toward digital jobs and traditionally male-dominated industries, as female-dominated occupations such as administrative and service roles decline with automation. We are experiencing the impact of historically discouraging women and girls from careers in STEM and ICT, a practice reinforced by social and cultural attitudes about the role of women in society.[7] On the plus side, emerging strategies presented at the GYEO Summit attempt to address this gender gap: They link education and training for young women and girls to growth industries; incorporate gender-sensitive and gender-inclusive tools and approaches; engage boys and men; and focus on initiatives that are more responsive to the unique challenges women face (e.g., discrimination and gender-based violence) and to their basic structural needs (e.g., access to finance, safe transportation, and child care). The challenge of achieving gender parity is instructive in thinking how to link interventions to the wider societal systems that impact the lives of young people, particularly those who are marginalized because of disability, sexual orientation, race, class, or status.

How do we bring the pieces of the puzzle together to help young people not just survive, but thrive?

The findings of our learning agenda research cover a wide range of issues but share something in common – they raise important questions about the contexts in which we operate. Namely, what are the system-wide conditions needed for young people to learn, earn, and thrive; to be healthy in body and in mind; to engage fully in their societies as citizens with a say in their future; and to feel a sense of optimism and possibility, regardless of their background. What does youth-inclusive growth look like, and what are the conditions needed to make this a reality?

These “system” questions inform the YEO Network’s 2019 – 2020 Learning Agenda, and the theme of this year’s 13th Annual Global Youth Economic Opportunities Summit: “The Opportunity Puzzle: Piecing it together to help youth learn, earn, and thrive”. We believe this means:

  • Addressing the entire eco-system of people, services, institutions, and policies that inform the conditions a young person’s life.

  • Engaging governments and the private sector, both critical partners for achieving inclusive policy, scale, and access to industries of opportunity for youth.

  • Connecting the pieces of the opportunity puzzle together in a way that is mutually reinforcing and inclusive of all young people.

  • Ensuring that issues like gender, sexual identity, disability, mental health, violence, and justice are included as essential, holistic components of our economic opportunities work with youth.

To support this focus, the 2019 GYEO Summit will continue to explore skills development, work readiness, and self-employment and entrepreneurship, as well as cross-cutting issues like gender, conflict, measuring impact, and scale. The agenda will also incorporate a deeper look at the following areas:

  • Policy and governance: How do we narrow the “policy gap” for youth social and economic mobility? How can we more effectively engage leadership to drive investments that benefit more young people?

  • Engaging business: Where are the emerging industries of opportunity, how can young people access these jobs, and how can we work with companies to recruit, retain, mentor, and train youth on the job?

  • Healthy workforce: How can we incorporate a stronger focus on issues of mental health and trauma in our youth economic opportunities programs?

  • The impact of disruption on youth economic opportunity: conflict and violence, environmental disaster, mass migration; these events impact young people’s social and economic wellbeing in critical ways. How well do we understand the impact on young peoples’ development, and how do we better reflect this understanding in the design of our programs and policies?

We have launched our Call for Proposals for the 2019 GYEO Summit and invite you to submit your presentations. We hope that you will join us at the Summit this fall. Visit to learn more about the GYEO Summit and our 2019 theme.

[1] “Youth 2030: Working for and With Young People”. United Nations : New York. 2018. Available at:

[2] “Global Employment Trends for Youth 2017: Paths to a better working future”. The ILO: Geneva. 2017. Available at:—dgreports/—dcomm/—publ/documents/publication/wcms_598669.pdf

[3] A new report by Oxfam revealed that in 2018 a new billionaire was created every two days, while the poorest half of the world’s population saw their wealth decline by 11 percent. See: “Inequality gap widens as 42 people hold same wealth as 3.7bn poorest”. The Guardian. Sunday, January 21st, 2018. Available at:

[4] For examples, see Lynk, an online gig-matching platform in Kenya designed to promote greater job security, fair wages, a safe work environment, and the opportunity for career growth to workers in the informal economy (; Intuit, The Freelancers Union and FlexJobs are other examples of products that have emerged in response to the rise in self-employed workers in need of health insurance, financial management tools, and job-matching. See: Rinne, April. “How Innovation is Helping the Self-Employed”. WEF: Geneva. 2015.

[5] “A Future Stolen: Young and out-of-school”. UNICEF: New York. September 2018. Available at:

[6] “Refugee Trauma Effects”. National Child Traumatic Stress Network: USA. 2019. Available at:

[7] According to the World Economic Forum (WEF), at the current rates of progress it may take another 217 years to close the economic gender gap globally. “Close the Gender Gap”. World Economic Forum (WEF): Geneva. 2018. Available at: