Youth are torch bearers of a new post-coronavirus world

01 October 2021

At the UNCTAD15 Youth Forum, global youth set the stage for a better future as the world emerges from the COVID-19 crisis.

The youth want to actively shape the post-coronavirus world marked by both new and expected crises - the climate emergency, rising inequality, social unrest and technological disruption.

This was the message from over 600 youth from 72 countries who attended the UNCTAD15 Youth Forum, a feeder event to UNCTAD’s mandate-defining moment – the 15th quadrennial conference scheduled for 3 to 7 October in virtual Barbados.

The forum took place from 16 to 18 September under the theme “Pull up: Change di Riddim”. It gave the youth a platform to discuss the most pressing issues that affect them and chart a new trajectory towards inclusive development efforts, a reimagined education system and a new “social contract”. Barbados Prime Minister Hon Mia Mottley told them “It is your resilience and your passion that will help us rise beyond this point in time”.

“All of you who share this forum are a motor of transformative positive change, and that together, you can multiply this force for good,” UNCTAD Secretary-General, Rebeca Grynspan, said in her opening remarks.

Over 117 speakers engaged the youth on topics related to technology, skills development, climate change, youth economic empowerment and mental wellbeing.

They included some of the world’s most knowledgeable and inspirational leaders, such as Simon Sinek, Lizzie Carr and Brian Wong, who encouraged the participants to dig deep and become lifelong students as they embrace leadership roles.

They urged the youth to look for opportunities in markets and communities that haven’t been disrupted yet, as the world attempts a recalibration after the disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Stepping forward with fresh ideas

Young people, eager to move away from the old era, are stepping forward with fresh ideas to solve cross-border challenges of rising poverty, climate change and the widening digital divide.

“We want to help build trust with our governments and communities. Our biggest aim is to keep on thinking globally and acting locally, engaging people with us to tackle the most pressing social, economic and environmental challenges together,” said one participant.

Working on a common agenda

Over the course of the event, the youth took part in interactive panels and career-building sessions with thought leaders such as Mathias Haas, digital experts and career coaches.

They also participated in “Youth o’Clocks” where eminent figures shared experiences that will help young people pick up the baton and enact the change they wish to see.

One of the hot topics was the economic impact of the pandemic on young people. Participants agreed that disruptions to key services in education and employment, along with soaring poverty rates continue to pose a threat to the youth in many countries.

They called for better employment initiatives and skill-building programmes tailored to the needs of current and future market needs.

“Having a job where you can be productive, meet your financial needs, have an impact on the community's economic growth and be inspired to have a positive social outlook is something that young people ought to have,” said another participant.

A real future of work for young people

The youth fervently discussed the rapid pace of digital transformation and its implication for the future of work.

Technology is claimed to be the great equalizer by many around the world, but only by enhancing connectivity, financial inclusion, access to trade and public services, can the world bridge socially constructed divides, the youth heard.

“We, the youth, will need to master a range of digital skills so that we can navigate the basics of life, succeed in our careers, and reach our full potential. These skills require lifelong learning to keep pace with technological innovation,” a participant said.

When asked what would empower the youth to achieve their career goals, most participants called for job-ready skills programmes in schools and universities, entrepreneurship incentives, access to relevant learning resources and a good mentor.

They said building soft skills is as important as having technical abilities, with Mr. Wong underscoring the importance of communication skills and Mr. Sinek the power of empathy.

Building resilience as an answer to uncertainty

Resilience was another major point of discussion, especially in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges, such as the climate crisis. It’s not too late to turn things around, some participants said.

One of them said: “Solving climate change requires us all to work together. We can’t do that without finding common ground with those who may not share our perspectives.”

Increased youth participation in the blue economy and improving sustainable food systems emerged as key factors in advancing a more environmentally conscious way of living, whilst offering economic opportunities for young people, especially those from indigenous groups living in coastal areas.

What does the future hold?

In a spirit of reinvigorated optimism, the participants stood in unison in their conviction that the youth across the world should take responsibility as torchbearers of change and take the centre stage of efforts towards global progress.

“You have an opportunity to ensure change is sustainable by tapping into opportunities like Youth 2030 and our Common Agenda,” said the United Nations Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth, Jayathma Wickramanayake.

UNCTAD’s 195 member states will hear this message as Youth Forum delegates take the discussions and inputs further to feed into discussions at the UNCTAD15 ministerial conference.

The Youth Declaration will propose solutions to the most pressing global challenges of concern to young people at the end of the conference.

The Youth Forum was co-hosted and organized by UNCTAD and Barbados, including a team of young people from the island nation with inputs from the youth worldwide.

Watch the UNCTAD15 Youth Forum here