Today one person in five is between the ages of 15 and 24 years. Altogether there are over one billion youth and they constitute a formidable force. About 500 young people from youth and student organizations met in Braga, Portugal in August for the third World Youth Forum of the United Nations system. The Forum also focussed on youth policies, youth participation and youth rights. The young delegates presented their recommendations to over 100 government leaders the following week at the first World Conference of Ministers Responsible for Youth in Lisbon. This important report was issued at the Forum
Most young people – about 85 per cent – live in developing countries with 60 per cent in Asia. The annual growth rates of youth population have slowed down in every region during the 1990s, according to United Nations statistics. Developed regions, and Eastern Asia – comprising China, Japan and others – suffered a negative growth rate. As a proportion of total population between 1980 and 1995, the number of young people has dropped everywhere except Africa.
In industrialized countries and East Asia, declining fertility rates have created aging populations, and social and economic policies are sometimes tilted in their favour. At the same time, middle-aged people still consider themselves young – an occurrence known as the "prolongation of youth" – which is now considered a global phenomenon.
Contrary to popular stereotypes, young people in general do not regard themselves as alienated, rebellious or antagonistic towards their families and adults, according to Drs. Richard and Margaret Braungart, who were commissioned by the Youth Unit of the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs to prepare an overview of international surveys of youth for a paper on the global situation of youth for the ministerial meeting in Portugal.
The two professors at Syracuse University in New York claim that the majority of young people surveyed express positive views about themselves and their life situation, although a growing number do admit to some risky, experimental behaviour. Studies consistently show that only a minority of young people is involved with serious problems such as substance abuse, teenage pregnancy, gangs and crime.
Overall, the surveys reviewed by Drs. Braungart highlighted young people's expressed need for opportunities to develop a sense of independence, competence and participation in society. However, young people's connection to new trends, ideas and technologies can be threatening to older people who believe that their value systems are being eroded, their authority diminished, and their knowledge seen as irrelevant.
The surveys show that youth are most concerned about issues concerning family, education and work. Overall, many share similar worries – from fears of illness in the family to worries about nuclear war and environmental destruction.
While trend watchers and youth researchers contend that the principal contemporary issues are globalization, cultural clashes, the environment, population growth, materialism and loss of spirituality, it is not clear whether young people have the same concerns. A 1996 global poll included in the Braungart study of 25,000 middle-class high-school students aged 15-18 years on five continents found them to be more similar than different. Personal achievement and a desire "to make something of themselves" was a pervasive value among 80 per cent of the world's youth, and respect for family was strong.
Young people in developing nations worried more about crime and the environment, while those in the industrialized world expressed grave doubts about the future of the world and tended to reject "the old way of doing things". American high school students were somewhat unique because, unlike most young people, they often held part-time jobs after school hours and on weekends, were more involved with dating, spent less time reading and doing homework, and had the highest levels of self-reported stress and academic anxiety.
A survey conducted in 1990 of U.S. students in private and public universities showed they were skeptical about adult leaders, whom many said did not care about people. But while the students were highly critical, they did not register as being either alienated or cynical. Instead they expressed the desire to participate in society through volunteer work (but not politics), and there was little evidence to suggest that they were self-absorbed, narcissistic, or disaffected.
Rich versus poor
Twelve percent of young people live in countries with high per capita incomes (more than $10,000 per year), whereas two thirds of the world's youth are growing up in countries with extremely low per capita annual incomes below $1,000.
However, growing up in a developed or advanced nation today does not mean that youth problems are minimized. Despite relatively high living standards, rates for psychological disorders, social problems and physical illnesses among youth in these countries increased in the 1990s. Alcohol and drug abuse, smoking, eating disorders, lack of exercise, and suicide are all prevalent problems among youth in the developed world.
Global youth culture
As societies become more complex, family and religion are no longer the primary socialization agents for young people. Schools and teachers and mass media also share the role. One of the first TV stations to be targeted specifically at youth is MTV, Music Television, which started in the United States in the early 1980s and has now expanded to every continent except Antarctica. The Internet also reaches and links young people around the world. Marketing and mass consumption are seen as important elements of the global youth culture.
Historically and currently, youth are caught between tradition and progress. There is much concern and speculation about Western values, consumerism and secular role models being imposed on the world's youth. In general, studies of youth in developing countries report that young people place more emphasis on family and tradition than on personal achievement.
Many young people manage to keep one foot in their country's past and culture while the other foot is headed in new directions, according to the Braungart study. For example, a study of Filipino youth caught in the throes of a modernizing society and abrupt political changes found that family solidarity was the most prominent value among youth, followed by respect for tradition.
In a recent exhibit at the United Nations featuring the artwork of young people from Kenya, one drawing by a teenage girl portrayed a young woman running and screaming to avoid female genital mutilation. The caption read, "Stop harmful traditional practices".
Gender gap and education
A 1988 study of teenagers in 10 developed and developing countries, conducted by Daniel Offer and others and included in the Braungart survey, found little evidence of a generation gap between youth and their parents. However, a striking finding was the gender gap between boys and girls. Boys expressed greater self-confidence, less vulnerability, and more happiness, pride and a subjective sense of well-being than did girls.
Today, two thirds of the world's children who never go to school or who drop out before completion are girls. As a result, adult women make up two thirds of the one billion people who are illiterate.
According to UN statistics, more boys than girls attend secondary school in 25 countries. In more than 40 countries worldwide, fewer than 25 per cent of girls are enrolled in secondary school. The worst disparity is found in South Asia, where 52 per cent of boys but only 33 per cent of girls are enrolled in secondary school. Secondary enrolment is low for both boys and girls in sub-Saharan Africa, with rates of just 27 per cent and 22 per cent, respectively.
However, 13 countries have higher enrolment rates for girls by 10 per cent or more. Girls generally lead boys in Latin America and the Caribbean, with 56 per cent of girls and 52 per cent of boys enrolled in secondary school.
UN statistics also show that the enrolment growth rate in higher education is growing faster for young women than for young men. In Latin America, the pace is ten times faster for women than for men. In general, there are more women enrolled in colleges and universities in developed countries, Latin America and the Caribbean, and South-eastern and Western Asia. In Sub-Saharan and Eastern Asia, the enrolment rate for women was approximately half of the men's rate in 1995.
Because of increased educational enrolments, young people's participation in the global labour force has been declining since 1970. However, statistics do show that young women work more than young men.
The high fertility rate for women under the age of 20 years is decreasing rapidly in most regions of the world. This trend is reducing health risks and offering better opportunities for young women. The only exception is Sub-Saharan Africa, where the fertility rate is higher for women under the age of 20. For women aged 20-24, the fertility rate is lowest in developed regions and Eastern Asia.
In most regions of the world, contraceptive practice is lower than 25 per cent for married women under 20, and lower than 40 per cent for married women under 25 years of age.
Overall, the average age for first marriages is becoming older “22-26 years for women and 25-28 for men. According to UN statistics, under 2 per cent of men aged 20-24 are married in most regions except in South-central Asia and Oceania, while 40 to 70 per cent of women between 20-24 are married in Sub-Saharan Africa, South-eastern and central Asia, Western Asia and Oceania.
Over 90 per cent of youth under the age of 20 are unmarried. However, in Sub-Saharan Africa and South-central Asia, more than 20 per cent of women under 20 years are married.
Suicide and depression
In all regions, depression is an emerging problem for young people. Adolescents undergo a very rapid process of physical, emotional, psychological, social and spiritual development, more than in any other phase of life.
Studies have found that while young women from western nations have special problems such as eating disorders, young women from developing countries are at higher risk for suicide. A 49-nation study – based on data from the World Health Organization – found that in developing countries, the female suicide rate is 75 per cent greater than the male rate for ages 5 to 24 years.
Nordic countries have had suicide prevention and education programmes for years, and initiatives are being considered in conjunction with the World Health Organization to explore the global implications of these projects.
Historically, adolescence and youth have been considered the healthiest periods of a person's life due to low mortality rates, and research has consequently been limited. However, young people have specific needs and concerns that deserve attention.
Over one third of the estimated 333 million new cases of sexually-transmitted diseases each year occur in young people under 25. In 1997, more than half of all new HIV infections, some 7,000 each day or 2.6 million, were among youth.
One third of all births each year are among young women, many of which are unplanned or unwanted. In developing countries, maternal mortality is young omen under 18 are 2 to 5 times higher than in women aged 18-25 years. Adolescents undergo between 1 and 4.4 million abortions each year, most of which are unsafe.
Half of regular smokers who start in adolescence and smoke all their lives will eventually be killed by tobacco (300 million youth currently smoke). In the USA, the most common substance related to the deaths of young people is alcohol.
Unintentional injury is the leading cause of death among young people, especially road traffic accidents among boys.
Youth suicide is increasing and is responsible for at least 100,000 deaths each year.
The five leading causes of death, illness and disability among young men are depression, traffic accidents, alcohol use, war and schizophrenia. The five leading causes of death, illness and disability among young women are depression, obstructed labour, suicide, chlamydia and iron-deficiency anemia.
Four major United Nations agencies – the World Health Organization (WHO), the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), and UNAIDS – have reached consensus on five major interventions to promote youth health:
Create a safe and supportive environment
Improve health services
The UN agencies have found from experience that the active involvement of young people is one of the most important principles of successful programming. The challenge for programme designers will be to improve young people's participation and skills rather than merely targeting specific problems.