Three Ways To Promote Youth Participation In The MENA Region
As a young person in the 21st century, I find it very difficult to understand why there is such a resistance, be it conscious or subconscious, to including youth in our major socio-economic and development institutions. According to a UNDP report entitled Enhancing Youth Political Participation throughout the Electoral Cycle published in 2012, people between the ages of 15 and 25 represent one-fifth of the world’s population. However, the average age of parliamentarians globally is 53. If such a substantial percentage of the world’s population is below the age of 25, why isn’t this reflected in our “institutions of change”?
According to The Deloitte Millennial Survey 2016, “millennials feel underutilized and [believe] they’re not being developed as leaders and they “often put their personal values ahead of organizational goals.” This thus leads them to shun potential employers and assignments that represent contradictory values. As Daniel H. Pink shares in his book, A Whole New Mind, “abundance, Asia, and automation” have changed the way that millennials conceptualize the world and their role in it- a reality that is pushing them to leave “conventional” institutions that don’t accommodate their values to join or create ones that do.
If we want to promote safe, productive and sustainable societies, we have to stop punishing youth with narratives that cite them as “the root of all our problems.” Unfortunately, a lot of the time, young people feel that it doesn’t matter what they do, because when they aren’t being chastised for being “lazy” or “complacent,” they are usually being undermined by development rhetoric that makes them feel like an unwelcome nuisance. We have to stop referring to the future of the MENA region as a “youth bulge” or a “public policy challenge,” especially when their desire to be impact-driven leaders isn’t being welcomed or rewarded by most of our social and economic institutions.
If we aren’t creating institutions, policies and narratives that enable our youth to become the leaders of the future, what are we doing? The widespread inclusion of youth in the MENA region, and beyond, can no longer be a point of contention or debate. The youth of today are the citizens, business leaders and social influencers of tomorrow, and if we are not empowering them to join our social, political and economic frameworks, then we are condemning these institutions to failure and irrelevance. Regardless of whether you’re an innovator in the startup world or the corporate world, we all have a responsibility as a community to “activate” our youth, and use their “abundance” to drive our social and economic growth.
Here are three things that you can start doing to empower the future of tomorrow in your startup or corporation.
1. Establish partnerships with local educational institutions
The World Economic Forum recently identified cognitive flexibility, negotiation, service orientation, judgment and decision-making, emotional intelligence, coordinating with others, people management, creativity, critical thinking and complex problem-solving skills as the top ten skills that will be needed for professionals to thrive in the workplace by 2020. Do startups and corporations know what each of these skills are, and why they are vital to the workplace? If they do, what are they doing to prepare the existing and future workforces to acquire these skills? One of the recurring complaints that I hear in the business sector, especially from startups, is that there’s a mismatch between their needs and the skills available in the MENA’s talent pool. While this may be true, it’s also true that startups and corporations in the region haven’t really taking ownership of their part of the solution.
If the business world wants to be able to recruit talent that meets their needs, then they have to be willing to partner with educational institutions at all levels, and invest in initiatives that will get young students on the “right” track to succeed in their workplaces. I’m not asking startups or corporations to reform the entire educational system- all I’m suggesting is that they help facilitate human capacity-building opportunities that will ultimately serve their long-term growth- and ours. Whether they help by developing university curricula or by hosting capacity-building workshops at high schools, the business world needs to take a more proactive role in molding and investing in the educational institutions that are producing their future workforce.
2. Make youth empowerment a core business value
Considering that the MENA region’s youth unemployment rate is the highest in the world, it should be every business’ moral responsibility to have youth empowerment be a part of their DNA. By 2025, it is estimated that millennials will make up 75% of the workforce, and eventually, the entire future customer base as well. So, it is in the best interest of entrepreneurs, who are just starting their journey, to establish sustainable ventures that integrate flexible HR policies, continuing learning and educational reform as a part of the “bedrock” of their enterprise. On the other hand, it is necessary for the world’s biggest corporations to start evolving their vision, work cultures and CSR efforts, so they can retain their millennial employees and remain relevant in the current market.
Whether they’re aligning, or re-aligning company values to incorporate more “youth-friendly” ones, startups and corporations need to seize this unique opportunity to consult young people and involve them in the transformation process. In addition to involving youth in the transformation process, there are also various international organizations and NGOs that can help startups and corporations structure and optimize their youth empowerment efforts. The Office of the UN Secretary General’s Envoy on Youth is a great resource for anyone who wants to learn more about what is going on in the “world of youth empowerment” and find ways to support the amazing young “movers and shakers,” who are already addressing the globe’s various development challenges through the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals.
3. Use your voice to mainstream youth concerns
Last, but certainly not the least, many businesses underestimate how simple and cost-effective empowering youth can actually be. Many startups, and most corporations, have thousands, if not millions of followers, on their social media accounts. They also have digital marketing and social media experts with the knowledge and budgets to get their message across to any audience in the world. So, imagine if Starbucks decided to do an Instagram feature on young female managers every week, highlighting the need for gender equality and decent work opportunities in the region? Imagine if Samsung used Snapchat to highlight the innovative work that young Arab entrepreneurs are doing with their technology? Every business, no matter how big or small, has the ability to change the way they allocate their resources, so they can use their voice to promote youth empowerment efforts that are also lucrative for their brand.
Another way that businesses can empower youth is to voice their concerns at international conferences and industry events. Unfortunately, even when an event is about youth empowerment, there is very little youth representation. With that in mind, more business influencers need to push industry event planners to make youth participation and issues a priority on their agenda. On the other hand, if businesses are hosting their own events, they should commit to inviting youth to attend these events, so they can directly provide our community stakeholders with the insight they need to create a better future. Regardless of the size of an event, where it is hosted or who is hosting it, startups and corporations need to start using their social influence to promote youth concerns, so they can become a mainstream voice in our international and business development discourse.
At the end of the day, I think it is important to highlight that young people don’t expect members of the business world to invest with no return. They’re merely asking startups and corporations to align and optimize their internal policies and “bottom line” with the interests of youth. In an earlier Deloitte Millennial Survey published in 2014, research found that “[w]hile most Millennials (74%) believe business is having a positive impact on society by generating jobs (48%) and increasing prosperity (71%), they think business can do much more to address society’s challenges in the areas of most concern. So, youth aren’t as negative or apathetic about the formal workforce yet. However, if businesses don’t change now, this might not always be the case. If startups and corporations start to champion the cause of youth capacity building, not only will they become pioneers in transforming the workforce on a global level, they will also create a generation of loyal employees, brand ambassadors and clients.
However, if the business sector continues to overlook young people’s professional and personal needs, they run the risk of alienating their future consumers, or much worse. As a young educated person, it is infuriating to hear people refer to youth’s legitimate request to create “ecosystems of success” for all as “entitlement.” But, for all intensive purposes, they’re right. Young people in the MENA region are entitled to be a part of institutions that enable them to access relevant education and decent working conditions that allow them to live with dignity and purpose. We’re not asking for charity, and we’re not asking for anyone to lower their standards. All we’re asking is that the stakeholders of our communities create spaces for us to participate. So, we can create a more sustainable, profitable and ethical future together.