Young people and the future
What does it mean to be a ‘youth’? Globally, we are experiencing a ‘youth bulge’, where 1.8 billion people are aged between 15 - 24 years – which means that the current global population is the youngest we have ever, or will ever, see. Unfortunately, the word ‘youth’ all too often conjures up a negative picture of violence, heightened emotions and erratic behaviour. This perception of youth is far from modern; in fact over 2000 years ago Aristotle described adolescents as “passionate, irascible and apt to be carried away by their impulses”.
Negative media portrayal exaggerates this perception, especially in an era of ‘youth radicalization’ by extremist groups, who target this vulnerable age group. Going hand-in-hand with vulnerability, youth also offers a period of huge potential for developmental change, which is largely ignored by governments and society. The vulnerabilities of youth, as well as the need to harness this potential - specifically in emerging markets such as China, Russia, Brazil and India - was the timely focus of the Emerging Markets Symposium 2016 at Green Templeton College, Oxford earlier this month.
The symposium bought together politicians, economists, health professionals, social science and science academics, in order to discuss youth within emerging markets; importantly more than a third of the participants were under the age of 30. This breadth of disciplines meant that a range of topics were discussed, with the idea of coming away with actionable points of how to best engage young people in their own future.
Changing society and increased responsibilities
Globally, but perhaps most significantly in emerging markets, we are undergoing wide societal change. People are becoming increasingly free to make their own decisions regarding education, employment and partnership, and design their own life trajectories. But alongside this increasing ‘freedom’, there is an increase in individual risk and responsibilities. On top of this, new worldwide challenges are constantly being reported, including economic transition, climate change, urbanisation, unemployment, as well as conflict and displacement.
These societal changes disproportionately affect youth, as this age group often has less knowledge, experience, power and fewer financial assets than older generations. Simultaneously, youth have better skills in some areas, specifically that of social media, internet and computing – meaning that adults are less able to support and guide young people. In many cases traditional social institutions are losing authority, and youth have even greater responsibilities placed on their shoulders.
Adolescence is a period of transition
The transition from childhood to adulthood requires increased risk-taking, as well as balancing impulsivity, exploration and defiance, in order to establish a role within society. Biologically, adolescence is a crucial period of development, characterised by both structural and functional changes within the brain, as well as increasing hormone levels and biological developments.
In the human brain the limbic system is responsible for fear, anger, excitement and other emotions. Recent research shows that it matures faster than other regions of the brain including the prefrontal lobes, which can be thought of as brakes to human emotions and impulses. This asynchronous brain development suggests that at the time of adolescence the brain has a more mature limbic system and less mature prefrontal lobe. This is theorised by some to be the cause of increased risk taking, erratic behaviour and heightened emotions characteristic of this age group. Therefore, these characteristics appear to be natural, with adolescents being biologically and evolutionary ‘primed’ to behave the way they do, but they are also necessary to make the transition to adulthood.
“passionate, irascible and apt to be carried away by their impulses”
[Aristotle - writing about adolescence]
Youth today therefore face the double burden of struggling to establish their position within our changing society, whilst dealing with their emotional and biological changes. In addition, the speed at which societal changes are currently occurring, especially in emerging markets, is unprecedented, meaning that older generations are disempowered to provide effective support for this age group. Together these factors put a huge burden of responsibility on this age group, and when this responsibility is not coupled with societal and system management for a smooth transition, it can lead to conditions of vulnerability, conflict and tension, which in many situations lead to violence and unrest.
Mental and physical health
In addition to biological and societal transition, adolescence is also a period of vulnerability to risk factors related to later life health adversities. Youth is thought of as the ‘healthiest age group’; and perhaps because of this, health systems tend to focus on pregnancy, childhood, middle and old age – and adolescence is neglected. Health systems also tend to focus on disease, rather than health, and do not emphasise prevention of illness, or promotion of good health and wellbeing. However, young people are at increased risk of engaging in behaviours that are associated with long term physical and mental health problems; this includes experimenting with illegal drugs, sexual risk taking, and violent activities.
Globally, the primary causes of years lost due to disability for adolescents are neuropsychiatric disorders (45%), unintentional injury and infectious diseases (Gore et al, 2011). Mental illness in adolescence is an important, yet neglected, issue. Mental illness such as schizophrenia often emerge during late adolescence, and in fact up to 75% of mental health problems experienced during adulthood have their onset before the age of 24 years.
The interaction between challenges of transition to adulthood, social adversity and social change mentioned above can lead to mental health problems across the life span. Youth suffering from mental health problems are less likely to finish education, thereby having negative impacts on their economic productivity. Mental health problems in adolescence are also associated with anti-social behaviours, which frequently lead to stigma, discrimination and human rights abuses. There is therefore a need for governments and health systems to place more emphasis on promotion of health and wellbeing, and prevention of risk behaviours in adolescence that lead to mental and physical ill health later in life.
"75% of mental health problems experienced during adulthood have their onset before the age of 24 years"
What needs to be done for youth in emerging markets?
The symposium focused its discussions around the need to harness the potential of youth in emerging markets, and to reduce their vulnerability for adverse health and societal outcomes, including involvement in violence and conflict. From the conclusions emerged three main themes that rang true for the field of global mental health. First was the urgent need for more research into the risk factors leading to adverse outcomes in this age group. This likely needs to be in the form of longitudinal studies that can effectively evaluate a range of risk factors and their association with later life outcomes. Second, was the need for promotion of good health. For this to be effectively accomplished, health systems must be re-designed to make them youth sensitive, and with a specific emphasis on wellbeing and mental health.
Finally, it was widely agreed that education was key; and an overhaul of education strategies to promote citizenship, social skills and entrepreneurism is integral. However, it is important to focus not only on what is taught, but also how it is taught. Teaching life skills, and how to think critically is of utmost importance. We are currently in an era where we are drowning in information coming from the internet and social media – it is therefore crucial to be able to establish which sources are reliable, and how to filter out incorrect or misleading data. This is especially true when looking for health related information, and youth need to know which sources they can trust and which not to trust. This is a major current barrier standing in the way of the internet and social media being used to promote positive life skills that will help protect adolescents against risk factors leading to later life adversities.