August 12 marks United Nations International Youth Day, arguably the most important day on the U.N. calendar you may not have heard of. However, there are roughly 1.8 billion reasons you should take note. Today's 'peak' youth generation represents the largest in human history, and more than half the global population is under the age of 30. Perhaps even more consequential to the security and economic landscape is that lower income--often volatile regions-- house a significant majority of young people worldwide. Poverty, inequality, conflict and displacement threaten stability and peace, and disrupt commerce and markets by subverting growth. Youth tend to be disproportionately affected by economic shocks as well as by violence and conflict, as both perpetrators and victims and comprise. A large share of the population in areas where ISIS, Al-Qaeda, and Boko Haram maintain and seek to expand their footprint - roughly a third in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Mali, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Somalia.
Recognizing the imperative of these demographic and security dynamics the U.N. Security Council, under a U.S. presidency, unanimously adopted Resolution 2250, on Youth, Peace, and Security in December 2015.
While youth can be a boon to economies, hundreds of millions of young people are neither in school nor work; and many labor markets can't keep pace in creating enough jobs to absorb new entrants contributing to alarming levels of unemployment. And though youth yearn to work, innovate, and be entrepreneurial, the inability of hundreds of millions to do so is undermining growth and costing the world billions of dollars, driving migration and destroying the social fabric of many communities. Roughly half of those seeking asylum in the European Union during 2015 and 2016 were between ages 18 and 30.
Despite their talent and ambition, as longer term financial prospects dwindle, far too many are losing hope in their future. Academics may debate whether scant evidence demonstrates a direct causal link between youth and violence or conflict, but there is little doubt that as conditions weaken, youth are more likely to be drawn into illicit or criminal economic activities.
Similarly, though youth tend to drive social, political, and peace movements, they don't necessarily have a meaningful voice in reforms or regime change and are too often sidelined from governance and decision-making. Only an estimated 2 percent of parliamentarians worldwide are in their twenties. Faced with rising education costs that often exclude those most in need and diminishing space for civic participation, youth feel more marginalized, more powerless over their fate, and more disillusioned and angry. Extremist propaganda becomes even more alluring.
The less youth have, the less they have to lose.
As the most connected generation, today's digital natives are turning to the internet to find opportunity and have their say as nefarious actors have mastered the art of messaging and online recruitment of marginalized, disgruntled and susceptible individuals worldwide. Groups like ISIS talks with youth, while we often talk at youth. The average age of Western ISIS fighters is 24, per a recent study.
At the same time, despite the challenges, youth have an overwhelming interest in being a partner for peace, as embodied in this year's official youth day theme "Youth Building Peace". Resolution 2250, while responding to and acknowledging the risks of the youth bulge, offers a positive approach that sees the constructive role young people can play in averting violence and advancing peace and security. It encourages governments to protect and utilize youths' collective strength by ensuring that policy environments and systems give everyone a chance to learn and earn, and that they ignite youth action through meaningful channels of participation in governance, dispute resolution, and online engagement.
Youth are frequently spoken of as the "future", but in doing so we risk neglecting and marginalizing them in the present - and this has dangerous consequences. If the U.S and its partners fail to sufficiently engage, support and nurture youth's aspirations and leadership, our adversaries are lined up to do so and we would not wish to see the likely outcomes of their influence over ours.
Instead, we should more deliberately orient our diplomatic initiatives and development investments toward strengthening young people's capacities and supporting youth-led or -serving organizations. Across Central America, for example, Jóvenes Contra la Violencia Centroamérica is a youth-led movement focusing on prevention. The United Network of Young Peacebuilders (UNOY) is a network of 80 youth peace organizations in 50 countries, with prominent participation from Africa and Asia. And, evidence is now emerging on how policies and programs can help smooth the education to employment pathway, enable entrepreneurs, and foster agency.
In these uncertain days, there is no time to waste in heeding the message of this International Youth Day. If we want to improve prospects for security, we should start by improving prospects for youth. This means listening to their interests and promoting their ability to contribute to global prosperity and peace.
Nicole Goldin, PhD is a Senior Associate of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Professorial Lecturer at the Elliott School of International Affairs of GW, and Principal of NRG Advisory. She served as Senior Advisor at the State Department and USAID during the Obama Administration. She is on twitter @nicolegoldin.
Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.