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Youth at risk

Today, 40% of the population of Latin America and the Caribbean are under 30 years of age. Addressing the challenges facing young people is key to boosting economic development, increasing productivity and equity, and reducing poverty and high levels of violence in the region. Engaging in high-risk behaviors has economic and social costs not for only the individual, but also for society as a whole. In addition, the lack of opportunities to complete high school, poor  education, weak labor markets and a lack of available jobs contribute to the marginalization of youth.

The challenge facing the region is to understand youth from the perspective of the life cycle, taking into consideration the sources of structural and contextual risks and vulnerabilities, and putting the individual at the center of the design of any intervention.

The youth of the region are in the heart of a paradox: on the one hand, they are better off than their parents in areas such as health, literacy, and access to secondary, technical and college education, and  to technology. But on the other hand, the risks to their safety and welfare are higher. Today, young people in the region are on average better educated and healthier than older adults. However, the world they live in requires them to adapt to constant change; and this tends to make them myopic in their perspectives and, therefore, more likely to adopt inconsistent behaviors over time. It also appears that, in inverse proportion to their educational level, they are more likely to be unemployed or underemployed and poorly paid; and they are more likely to suffer the effects of organized violence.

The many risks to which vulnerable young people are exposed are by no means independent; on the contrary, they are strongly interconnected. These young people represent a source of human capital that has not been developed, or that is lost for some reason. If this human capital is not recovered, developed and strengthened at this stage, it may be lost forever. Investing in young people creates a window of opportunity to correct inequities and increases the likelihood that the young - and those who depend on them – will have a more productive and better life.

Not all young people are the same and one of the factors that best explains their differences relates to the degree of vulnerability they experience. Among young people, poverty levels, the neighborhoods where they live, race, gender and immigration status are good proxies to characterize risky behaviors. In addition, the most vulnerable young people have to face multiple risks simultaneously. These are the so-called ‘youth at risk.’

To meet these needs, the Bank designs and implements jointly with the countries, programs to build human capacity and create opportunities for young people of the  region. Its work in the area of social protection and health focuses on the following topics:

Teen parenthood: One of the main perpetuators of the poverty cycle among women is early motherhood. According to ECLAC, nearly a quarter of young Latin American women between 15 and 24 years of age were mothers before age 20.The maternal mortality rate is higher among teenage mothers, compared to other age ranges. Early motherhood is also linked to lower education, higher unemployment rates and perpetuating risky behavior within the family.

Youth unemployment: Unemployment is considered a risk factor, and is associated with greater likelihood of drug use and violent behavior. Over the past decade, youth have accounted for between a third and half of all unemployed people in the region. Region-wide, the youth unemployment rate is at least double that of adults; it reached 3.5 times that of adults in Uruguay, Paraguay, Chile, Costa Rica, and Panama in recent years (LABORSTAT 2010). Along with expanding job opportunities and improving their quality, there is a need to simultaneously address the multiple variables that hinder youth employability.

Risky behaviors: Youth violence, addictions and sexually transmitted diseases are major economic, social and health problems in the region. These problems are not only due to supply factors and early exposure to unsafe environments; also playing a key role are social factors associated with a lack of investment in human capital and early initiation into risky behaviors, a lack of access to mechanisms of social mobility, institutional disaffiliation among young people who are neither studying nor working, early socialization in aggressive or criminal cultures, and a lack of career aspirations that stems from the reality that higher education often does not guarantee employment options. According to recent estimates, societal violence cost Latin America a 13% reduction in its GDP, on average (Soares and Naritomi, 2010), as well as imposing direct costs on health and in increasing mortality rates.

Using a rigorous evidence base and risk prevention tools, the IDB is working in all these areas to support and encourage investments in youth activities, beginning in early childhood and including key interventions in health, nutrition and cognitive and non-cognitive development. Bank interventions are designed to promote the acquisition of practical life skills and focus on non-cognitive aspects such as self-esteem, self-expression, stress management and planning skills, all qualities that are essential to preventing risky behaviors and that are increasingly in demand in the labor market.

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