World YMCA Secretary General Carlos Sanvee writes for the World Economic Forum Agenda on International Youth Day, 12 August 2020

• Young people’s health, education and employment prospects have been adversely affected by COVID-19.

• Despite often being blamed for irresponsible behaviour during the pandemic, the younger generation has also been heavily involved with relief efforts.

• Young people are key to bridging three great divides in the world today.

It may seem strange that on International Youth Day the world needs to stop and remember its 1.2 billion people aged 15 to 24, but it does.

The adults who run our world frequently forget where they came from, and ignore the fact that there are many more people coming up behind than ahead of them.

And when they do turn to young people, they sometimes rather patronisingly call them “the future”, while excluding them from the present – a present that, for very many young people, is tough.

Even without COVID-19, we would be talking about the pressure on young people, their increasing isolation in the world of social media, and trends in poor health, poor education, poor training, poor employment and sometimes a poor sense of what it is to be a responsible part of society.

But now, with COVID, the disease that we think of as affecting older and more vulnerable people in fact disproportionately affects young ones, with disrupted schooling, social interactions and jobs. Again, the ILO cites that one in six young people worldwide have stopped working since the pandemic.

It gets worse, because in swathes of North America and Europe at least, young people are newly seen as the villains of the COVID situation, enjoying summer sun and ignoring social distancing, as potential asymptomatic carriers of the virus who can pass it on to their elders.

The global labour market for youth in 2019
The global labour market for youth in 2019.
Image: ILO

As with COVID, as with all of life: The world needs to recognize that it is young people, too, who bear much of the world’s pain, and that young people, too, can lead the world to many of the solutions.

Young YMCA volunteers have been sewing face masks for their communities in the Czech Republic, installing taps to aid hand-washing in Togo and providing humanitarian aid in Bangladesh.

As COVID cases mount in Latin America, national YMCAs have been accelerating seed-funding programmes for young entrepreneurs, ensuring that they and their elders are fed while young apprentices prepare for the world of work.

As with COVID so with all our global challenges. We should also look to young people to provide solutions to the three great, yawning divides I see wherever I look:

The divide between “self” and “nature”, as we continue to degrade the planet that young people – or their children – may never inherit. Between “self” and “other”, in the chasms of wealth, colour and gender that continue to plague both North and South. These are the divides that await young people entering adulthood. And between “self” and “self”, or perhaps “self” and “God”: in people unconnected with their spiritual identity and purpose.

Every day of my life – in the global YMCA and far beyond – I see young people actively bridging those divides.

First, in reconciling “self” with “nature”. It is not just the phenomenal activism of Greta Thunberg and the global youth climate summits.

It is groups of young people everywhere who care, who say so, and who act by changing their own, their schools’ and their communities’ consumption habits. YMCA “green teams” in the Asia-Pacific region have cut carbon emissions in their buildings and launched tree-planting programmes.

Second, in reconciling “self” with “other”. It is not just the way we nurture youth leaders as change-makers, peacemakers and carers for their elders.

It is young people being bold and articulate enough to bring issues like racism out into the open, and to develop diversity and inclusion initiatives – themselves – that coach and empower people of colour to play an equal part in youth organizations, especially in the USA.

Third, in reconciling “self” with “self”, or “self” with “God”. To see the passion and sincerity of young people of faith is the one of the most instructive acts of adult education I have ever undertaken. Since COVID began, I have been privileged to join young people’s online worship, linking 30 or 40 countries. I have learned so much from teenagers and people in their early 20s as they look again, through a COVID lens, at the meaning of their lives.

It is for all these reasons that International Youth Day should wake the world up to some simple and profound realizations about young people.

They are the future, yes. But they are also the present.