Who Are the Youth?
There is no universally agreed international definition of the youth age group. For statistical purposes, however, the United Nations—without prejudice to any other definitions made by Member States—defines ‘youth’ as those persons between the ages of 15 and 24 years. This definition, which arose in the context of preparations for the International Youth Year (1985) (see A/36/215), was endorsed by the General Assembly in its resolution 36/28 of 1981. All UN statistics on youth are based on this definition, as is reflected in the annual yearbooks of statistics published by the UN system on demography, education, employment and health.
This statistically oriented definition of youth, in turn, entails that children are considered those persons under the age of 14. Worthy of note, however, is that Article 1 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child defines ‘children’ as persons up to the age of 18. At the time, it was hoped that the Convention would provide protection and rights to as large an age-group as possible, especially as there was no similar document on the rights of youth.
Many countries also draw the line on youth with regard to the age at which a person is given equal treatment under the law—often referred to as the ‘age of majority.’ This age is commonly 18 in many countries; so that once a person attains this age, he or she is considered to be an adult. Nonetheless, the operational definition and nuances of the term ‘youth’ vary from country to country, depending on relative sociocultural, institutional, economic and political factors.
State of the World’s Youth
Today, there are 1.2 billion young people aged 15 to 24 years, accounting for 16 per cent of the global population. By 2030—the target date for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that make up the 2030 Agenda—the number of youth is projected to have grown by 7 per cent, to nearly 1.3 billion.
As youth are increasingly demanding more just, equitable and progressive opportunities and solutions in their societies, the need to address the multifaceted challenges faced by young people (such as access to education, health, employment and gender equality) have become more pressing than ever.
Youth can be a positive force for development when provided with the knowledge and opportunities they need to thrive. In particular, young people should acquire the education and skills needed to contribute in a productive economy; and they need access to a job market that can absorb them into the labour force.
Learn more about the situation of young people around the world.
The United Nations youth agenda is guided by the World Programme of Action for Youth. The Programme of Action covers fifteen youth priority areas and contains proposals for action in each of these areas. Adopted by the General Assembly in 1995, it provides a policy framework and practical guidelines for national action and international support to improve the situation of young people around the world. Learn more about the Programme of Action.
History of Youth at the UN
The United Nations has long recognized that the imagination, ideals and energy of young people are vital for the continuing development of the societies in which they live. Member States of the United Nations acknowledged this in 1965 when they endorsed the Declaration on the Promotion among Youth of the Ideals of Peace, Mutual Respect and Understanding between Peoples.
Two decades later, the United Nations General Assembly observed 1985 as the International Youth Year: Participation, Development and Peace. Celebration of the Year drew international attention to the important role that young people play in the world, and, in particular, to their potential contribution to development.
In 1995, on the tenth anniversary of the International Youth Year, the United Nations strengthened its commitment to young people. It adopted an international strategy: the World Programme of Action for Youth to the Year 2000 and Beyond, which directed the international community’s attention and channeled its response to the challenges that would be faced by youth in the next millennium.
In December 1999, in its resolution 54/120, the General Assembly endorsed the recommendation made by the World Conference of Ministers Responsible for Youth (Lisbon, 8-12 August 1998) that 12 August be declared International Youth Day. With a different focus each year, International Youth Day helps bring youth issues to the attention of the international community and celebrates the potential of youth as partners in today’s global society.
To coincide with the 25th anniversary of the first International Youth Year, the United Nations General Assembly, in December 2009, adopted resolution 64/134 proclaiming the year commencing 12 August 2010 as the International Year of Youth. The Assembly called on governments, civil society, individuals and communities worldwide to support activities at local and international levels marking the Year.
In 2015, the Security Council unanimously adopted resolution 2250, which encouraged States to consider setting up mechanisms that would enable young people to participate meaningfully as peacebuilders to prevent violence and generate peace around the world. As the first Security Council resolution wholly dedicated to the vital and positive role of young people in promoting international peace and security, this resolution clearly positions youth as important partners in global efforts in promoting peace and countering extremism.
In 2018, in resolution 2419, the Council reaffirmed the need to fully implement resolution 2250 and called on all relevant actors to consider ways to increase the representation of young people when negotiating and implementing peace agreements.
Youth and the SDGs
A central principle of the 2030 Agenda is the assurance that “no one will be left behind.” The Sustainable Development Goals are meant for all nations, all peoples of all ages and all societies. The universal nature of the 2030 Agenda entails that youth should be considered across all Goals and targets. Youth are specifically mentioned in four areas: youth employment, adolescent girls, education and sports for peace. Moreover, young people are recognized as agents of change, entrusted with fulfilling their own potential and ensuring a world fit for future generations.
While all the Sustainable Development Goals are critical to youth development, the realization of targets in areas of education and employment are underlined by the latest edition of the World Youth Report as fundamental to overall youth development.
Youth and SDG 4: Quality Education
Education is a fundamental right for youth everywhere. Sustainable Development Goal 4 calls for inclusive and equitable quality education and the promotion of lifelong learning opportunities for all. To achieve this, there is a need for concerted efforts to ensure that young women and men have access to free, equitable and quality education, as well as targeted training opportunities. The most recent statistics suggest that there are profound global disparities in education, leaving universal secondary education a tenuous aspiration for many, especially those in poorer nations.
Ensuring access to inclusive and equitable quality education is essential for successful transition into the labour force and attaining decent work, and is key to the achievement of many Sustainable Development Goals. Quality primary and secondary education should be complemented by affordable technical, vocational and tertiary education that provides youth with relevant skills for employment and entrepreneurship.
Youth and SDG 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth
Sustainable Development Goal 8 contextualizes the call for decent work. For young people, the issues of unemployment, underemployment and poor job quality have proven to be persistent and daunting. Youth are three times more likely to be unemployed than adults, with the global youth unemployment rate at 13 per cent in 2017. Many young people are engaged in low-paying, precarious or informal work. The challenges of securing and retaining decent work are even more serious and complex for vulnerable and marginalized youth, including young women, those living in humanitarian settings, youth with disabilities, migrant youth, and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth.
Youth in architecting and implementing the 2030 Agenda
Young people may be called the ‘torchbearers’ of the 2030 Agenda, since they have a pivotal role to play not just as beneficiaries of actions and policies under the Agenda, but rather as partners and participants in its implementation. Indeed, young people have been architects in the development of the 2030 Agenda, and remain engaged in the frameworks and processes that support its implementation, follow-up and review.
The adoption of the 2030 Agenda represented the culmination of an extensive three-year process involving Member States and civil society, including youth organizations, in the development of specific goals and targets.
Youth well-being, participation and empowerment are key drivers of sustainable development and peace around the world. Achieving the 2030 Agenda requires strong and inclusive partnerships between young people and all stakeholders, so that the development challenges facing youth (such as unemployment, political exclusion, marginalization, problematic access to education and health etc.) are addressed and the positive role of youth as partners in promoting development and sustaining peace is recognized.
Young people have been at the forefront of activities and initiatives aimed at furthering the 2030 Agenda and meeting the Goals. Youth are engaged in a myriad of ways including awareness-raising, data collection and use, grass-roots and national initiatives, monitoring and accountability efforts, and shadow reporting on progress.
United Nations for Youth
On the basis of its global convening role, the United Nations is uniquely placed to act as a source of protection and support for young people, and to provide a platform through which their needs can be addressed, their voice can be amplified, and their engagement can be advanced.
The UN Programme on Youth of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA), which serves as the focal point on youth in the United Nations, builds awareness of the global situation of young people; promotes their rights and aspirations; and helps increase their participation in decision-making as a means of achieving peace and development. DESA coordinates the participation of youth delegates in the General Assembly and ECOSOC system, where Governments regularly include young people in their official delegations.
The Secretary-General appointed his Envoy on Youth in January 2013 and a Special Envoy on Youth Unemployment in September 2016. Together the youth envoys work to increase youth accessibility to the United Nations.
DESA prepares the World Youth Report, a biennial publication shining a spotlight on key areas of youth development.
The ECOSOC Youth Forum is a yearly event that provides a platform for young people to voice their needs and concerns through informal dialogue with other stakeholders—in particular Member States—and to explore ways to promote youth development at all levels. The Forum represents the most institutionalized venue for youth participation in UN deliberations and is an important vehicle to mobilize support among young people for implementing the 2030 Agenda.
Youth and the UN System
In 2012, the United Nations Chief Executives Board for Coordination (CEB) discussed the topic of youth and sustainable development in light of the confluence of events during the Arab spring and in preparation for the Rio+20 conference. Executive Heads exchanged views on the various dimensions of programmatic issues affecting youth, including youth employment, political inclusion, health and education. The Board emphasized the importance of greater UN system coordination in support of youth development.
Subsequently, UN-DESA and UN-HABITAT led the Inter-Agency Network on Youth and Development (IANYD) in preparing the System-wide Action Plan on Youth (Youth-SWAP). Endorsed by the CEB in April 2013, Youth-SWAP focuses on joint action by the UN system on the issues of employment and entrepreneurship, political inclusion, civic engagement and protection of rights, education (including sexuality education), and health.