What we can learn from the 2021 Youth Progress Index

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

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[European Youth Forum]

They are vastly underrepresented in decision making, much more likely to face a future of economic and environmental insecurity, and already enduring declining mental health. Yet, young people make up a significant part of the global population: in 2019, there were around 1.2 billion people between 15 and 24 years old living on the planet. According to the UN, this population is projected to grow to just under 1.4 billion people by 2065.

The European Youth Forum, in collaboration with the Social Progress Imperative, is presenting the second edition of its Youth Progress Index (YPI) live on 10 June. It sheds light on what young people’s life looks like in over 150 countries worldwide, following an innovative methodology focusing exclusively on social progress rather than purely economic indicators.

It finds that, while 65 countries have improved their youth progress performance over the past decade, young people are facing increased barriers in accessing their personal rights – including freedom of expression and religion, political rights, access to justice and property rights for women.

As the fallout of Covid-19 and the climate crisis are set to impact their lives and opportunities more than other generations, the Index’s goal is to serve as an actionable tool to help leaders and policy makers implement policies and programmes that tackle the challenges that younger generations are facing and drive faster social and sustainable progress.

Or, as UN Secretary General’s Envoy on Youth Jayathma Wickramanayake writes in the foreword to the Index report, it “gives concrete pointers where some of the key aspects to improve are, taking into account the megatrends of climate change, digital revolution, and a global pushback on civic space. And as you will see when reading this report, that only partly relates to financial means. More than anything else, it is about political choices”.

The aim is that, thanks to the report and the Index, policy makers and activists will learn more about what progress can be made in their own country – and act on it.

“The launch of our new Youth Progress Index comes at a crucial moment in time. As the aftermath of the pandemic has left young people facing huge challenges and threats to our wellbeing, action must be taken to support our generation to access our rights”, says María Rodríguez Alcázar, a Board Member of the European Youth Forum. “This invaluable data source gives policy makers a unique country by country insight into the lives of young people and real evidence of what best practices will enable us to ‘build back better’, independent of GDP.”

The Index considers “youth” to include all individuals in the transition period between childhood and adulthood – a specific bracket that might be longer or shorter depending on local social context. While young people must be considered a specific group to be targeted with precise policies and programmes, some subgroups of young people – including women, members of the LGBTQI community and young people with disabilities – tend to face further challenges.

Considering this, the Index has been monitoring the advancement of young people’s wellbeing and countries’ performance in areas such as education, healthcare, housing and environmental sustainability. It uses globally available datasets going back ten years around three main domains: Basic Human Needs, Foundations of Wellbeing and Opportunity to reach their full potential.

It also focuses on outcomes rather than inputs: for example, it measures health and wellness achieved by a country’s people, rather than on how much the state spends on healthcare.

All countries taken into account have been ranked by their YPI score. Here’s what emerged.

All European Union member states fall within the first 47 positions of the global ranking, with Denmark and Finland falling into second and third position, after Norway. Bulgaria was the worst-faring EU country. This means that, compared to the rest of the world, EU countries generally provide a quite good quality of life for young people, and that young people in Europe are more likely to see their rights realised.

Yet, they still face challenges in areas such as Personal Safety, Environmental Quality, Personal Freedom and Choice, and Inclusiveness. Overall, the analysis demonstrates a strong relation between respect for fundamental freedom and civic space more generally, and youth progress: a link that must be kept in mind as the global authoritarian pushback against democratic participation continues.

Countries with higher levels of income per capita generally perform better – although countries with similar levels of GDP, such as Portugal and Lithuania, can achieve vastly different youth progress outcomes – demonstrating that improving the quality of life for young people is more a matter of precise political choices, rather than of money.

When the Youth Progress Index is adjusted to take into account the country’s environmental sustainability achievements, though, a dark truth is revealed. Many of the best scoring countries progress at a disproportionate environmental cost. While contributing the least to the problem, countries in the lower tiers – mostly located in the Global South – are suffering disproportionately from the impact of the climate crisis.

Ultimately, the report argues that we should rethink how we look at progress: “should we consider something as progress at all, if it impacts so negatively on our planet’s future, and on the future well-being of the very generation that we are researching?”

Join the online launch event for the Youth Progress Index! Registration is open via Eventbrite. 

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