Did you know that half the world’s population is under the age of 25? Most people don’t. Beyond being interesting fodder for cocktail party conversation, it’s a statistic that’s beginning to resonate in more serious policy debates.

In January 2013, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and the International Youth Foundation, with support from Hilton Worldwide, launched a joint effort to create a first-ever Global Youth Wellbeing Index.

Many asked us: Why are you doing this? Why are you—a foreign policy and security think tank, a major global company, and an international NGO—taking such an interest in youth? Why this index? And why are you doing it now?

Here’s why. There are nearly 2 billion youth on the planet today, making this generation the largest in human history. Roughly 85 percent live in emerging and developing economies, and fragile states. With such demographics, the partnering institutions realized that though their bottom lines may differ, their collective fortunes or failures rest to a large extent on the state of youth.

Yet at a time when policy and investment decisions are increasingly data-driven, data on youth is often fragmented, inconsistent, or nonexistent. Beyond the big headlines, our understanding of how young people are doing and ability to respond strategically is limited. Furthermore, we don’t effectively use or communicate what we do know to inform or inspire policy and investments concerning youth.

Knowing this, our team sought to create a tool that could help provide an accurate, simple, and actionable picture of where youth stand today.

We developed the broad architecture of the index based on theory and practice of national development and human well-being, and on what we know matters for young people in preparing for adulthood. This resulted in a framework comprising six interconnected “domains”:

  • Citizen participation
  • Economic opportunity
  • Education
  • Health
  • Information and communications technology
  • Safety and security

At the same time, we knew we needed to be innovative in our approach. Because young people’s behavior is often based on their perceived realities, we decided early in the process to include both objective and subjective indicators. We wanted to assess well-being in terms of available opportunities, what and how youth are doing, and how they feel about it. To accomplish this, our methodology included a mix of three types of indicators across the domains, for a total of 40 measures. Indicators included:

  • Enabling environment (such as macroeconomic climate, public spending on education, and level of peace),
  • Youth outcome (such as volunteering, unemployment, and road accident fatalities)
  • Youth outlook and satisfaction (such as outlook toward government, wealth expectations, and stress levels)

We invited input and participation from more than 50 experts and stakeholders, across 35 different public and private sector organizations, to inform indicator and data selection. We also held a final global advisory review with representatives from the major regions covered by the index to validate the final framework.

Highlights

The index covers 30 countries whose citizenry includes 70 percent of the world’s young people. The results uncover a number of striking trends and constitute an evidence-based call for action. For one, a large majority of the world’s young people are experiencing low levels of well-being; 85 percent of the youth represented in our index live in countries with below-average scores overall, shedding light on the scale of the challenge. Even more interesting is that even where young people are doing relatively well, they still face significant challenges and limitations, or have a dangerously negative outlook. Spanish youth, for example, face economic exclusion, while Saudi young people grapple with safety and security.

At the same time, one of the most interesting trends is that youth in less-wealthy nations or countries near the bottom of the index ratings display success in certain areas, and may be more optimistic than their environments or outcome data would suggest. Young people in Indonesia, for example, expressed a positive outlook on a majority of the survey measures. Also, in citizen participation, many wealthier countries—including the United States—drop in rankings, and countries in the bottom ranks overall rise to the top. India, South Africa, and Uganda, for example, rank high in terms of citizen participation, but at the bottom of the overall ranking.

In another interesting pattern, most countries in the Americas and the Middle East and North Africa region drop in safety and security relative to their composite ranks, owing to high crime, unrest, gang violence, and weaker rights protections. While, at 11th overall, Vietnam outranks its lower-middle-income peers, driven by high scores in health and economic opportunity, and proves that youth can attain well-being even where resources are constrained.

Across countries, scores in six domain sub-indices indicate that young people are faring the best in health and (perhaps unsurprisingly) the worst in economic opportunity, with the most variance in information and communications technology. The United States ranks first in economic opportunity, but it’s clear that young people worldwide were hard hit by the global recession and youth un- and underemployment crisis. While the United States scores on enabling and outcome measures indicate a supportive environment with relatively robust opportunities, American youth—like so many of their peers around the world—express low expectations about their economic prospects. This speaks to our finding that perceptions and realities don’t always align.

What’s Missing

Though there is a lot in the index, it has its limitations. For one, youth are not a monolithic group. Whether they are from Mexico or Morocco, their quality of life is shaped by culture, providence, gender, and other factors like socioeconomic or marital status, religion, disability, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. We know, for example, that young men and women experience differences in equity and outcomes, as evidenced by differing rates of education enrollment or interpersonal violence. However, a lack of disaggregated data across all the indicators meant that we were unable to fully assess how specific groups are doing in comparison to all youth.

Data constraints also limited our ability to include variables such as youth voting, youth poverty, or mobile use. As the data revolution comes to youth, we can expand tools like the index and make them even more useful.

Taking Action

The index highlights the need to elevate and better connect and coordinate policies and investments concerning young people; increase collection and use of data, particularly age-disaggregated and youth opinion data; and pay closer attention to youth views and aspirations with increasing youth participation in decision-making processes.

Since its release, the index has stimulated discussion and informed economic, social, and political agendas for young people (including the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals), generating recommendations for action both globally and locally. Policymakers and advisors are currently using it as a policy tool to inform the development of national youth policies and strategies in Kazakhstan and Indonesia, and a deeper assessment of the youth situation in Vietnam is forthcoming.

We hope that the index will continue to help bring attention to what youth need, and encourage investments in strategic policies, partnerships, and programs that engage and equip youth to be productive citizens and realize their ambitions.

If this transformative generation thrives, so might we all.

Read more about the methodology, findings, data, and news here.

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