The largest generation of young people in history is now making the transition from childhood to adulthood. Eighty-six percent of this group—nearly 1.5 billion individuals—live in the developing world. A new report for the U.S. National Academies' National Research Council and Institute of Medicine, Growing Up Global: The Changing Transitions To Adulthood in Developing Countries, shows that despite dramatic progress in certain areas, many young people still lack adequate schooling and good health. Cynthia B. Lloyd, Population Council researcher and editor of Growing Up Global, discussed the conceptual framework and major findings of the report at a June 9th event sponsored by the Environmental Change and Security Project. Introducing Lloyd, Barney Cohen, director of the National Academies' Committee on Population, noted that the 15-member Panel on Transitions to Adulthood in Developing Countries was funded by USAID and the World Bank, among others.

The panel was "interested in how the acceleration of rapid population growth is intersecting with some of the other things that are occurring globally" and, given the overwhelming concentration of youth in the developing world, the importance of asking "how the experience of youth in the developing world is divergent from other youth experiences," said Lloyd. To answer these questions, the panel focused its research on three major areas: the preparation for adult roles, including schooling and health; the transition into adult roles, such as work, citizenship, marriage, and parenthood; and finally, policy and program implications. Each of these sectors present interesting starting points for further research, as Lloyd acknowledged that "given the complexity of the topic and given the fact that we do not have all of the data that we would like, we wanted to set this in a larger framework to provide people some guideposts."

Major Findings

Lloyd described the report's major findings:

  • Overwhelmingly, the majority of people age 10-24 live in Asia, with China and India hosting most of these numbers;
  • School attendance is up and the gender gap is closing rapidly. However, there is still an economic discrepancy in school attendance, with poor girls being the least likely to attend school;
  • Test scores still show a wide gap between the performance of students from developing countries and those in developed countries;
  • Young people are entering adolescence earlier and healthier, except in Sub-Saharan Africa, where the leading cause of death is HIV/AIDS;
  • Child labor has declined and the number of women in the workplace has increased; and
  • Rates of early marriage have declined dramatically, but are still surprisingly high.

Policy Implications: "Like a Rowboat Trying to Catch a Speedboat"

The panel found an increasing discrepancy in the quality of youth education in the developing world. By setting goals only for school attendance, the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals do not go far enough, challenged Lloyd: "Our findings are really emphasizing investment in primary school quality"; the panel is "concerned that it will be difficult to build a base for secondary school expansion without improvements in school quality." By focusing only on attendance, Lloyd said, the Millennium Development Goals are akin to "a rowboat trying to catch a speedboat."

Despite this assessment, Lloyd was quick to point out many positive findings. For example, the panel reported that the most effective policies used multi-pronged approaches. Many statistics indicated that the situation of young people in developing countries is improving. These gains must continue, Lloyd emphasized: "The nature and quality of young people's futures and the future of the globe depends on how successfully they negotiate this critical period of their life."

Drafted by Alicia Hope Herron.