Chapter 1. The conceptual framework of youth programmes

This section introduces the various concepts used in this toolkit. It starts by defining youth, beyond the definition of age. It describes the individual and environmental factors that can influence a young person’s well-being. The life cycle approach and the causal linkages between different life transitions are explained. Finally, it emphasises the need to identify and focus policies on the most disadvantaged youth, calling for targeted policies for those young people already suffering from certain deprivations and for those at risk of falling into deprivation.

  

Defining youth

Youth commonly refers to the transitions from childhood to adulthood, a time of great change during which young people experience rapid physical and emotional development. This period involves several stages with specific opportunities and challenges: attending school, becoming sexually active, accessing paid work, making independent decisions and becoming accountable for the consequences, forming close relationships outside the family circle, and exercising citizenship. These transitions might be longer or shorter, depending on the prevailing social and legal norms, as well as the cultural and economic context. That said, specifying an age group is often needed to monitor youth development and well-being outcomes. The United Nations (UN) defines a young person as aged 15-24, while the African Union defines it as aged 15-35. Several UN entities, instruments, regional organisations and countries have somewhat different definitions of youth. For the purpose of this framework, the terms “youth” or “young people” are used interchangeably and generally refer to the age group 15-24 (or sometimes 15-29) to capture issues related to school-to-work transitions. Early childhood and adolescence is taken into account in determinant analyses in order to capture the life cycle effects.

Risk factors and youth environments

Although most young people go through adolescence and enter adulthood with few problems, a large number, especially in low- and middle-income countries, are exposed to risk factors that threaten their development and well-being (United Nations Development Programme [UNDP], 2014; Cunningham et al., 2008; World Bank, 2006; United Nations Children’s Fund [UNICEF], 2011). Many risk factors are rooted in the interplay between a young person’s environment and individual characteristics. Individual traits refer to physiological, cognitive and psychological attributes of individuals, as well as biological aspects, such as race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or disability status. Youth environment relates to i) family circumstances, including household poverty, poor care, lack of parental support or violence in the household; ii) community circumstances, such as negative peer influences, community violence, lack or poor quality of schools, or inadequate basic infrastructure and public services; iii) social institutions, norms and values, such as restricted civil liberties, gender discriminatory social norms or harmful traditional practices; and iv) policies and macro circumstances, such as weak social policies, inadequate judicial systems, joblessness and unsustainable growth policies, conflict and wars, or climate change and hazardous environments that affect young people’s lives (Figure 1.1).

Figure 1.1. Environment and factors affecting a young person’s well-being
picture

Source: Authors’ own elaboration.

A life cycle perspective on youth well-being

Risk factors are not homogeneously distributed over the life cycle. There are age-specific risks that are typically higher in earlier stages of life, with long-term and sometimes irreversible consequences in later stages of life (Table 1.1). Recognising that past experience matters for youth outcomes, and that youth outcomes will influence future outcomes, adopting a life cycle approach allows identifying both the right timing and nature of interventions and the synergies across sectors and ages.

Table 1.1. Selected risk factors and poor well-being outcomes over the life cycle

Prenatal and at birth

Early childhood (0-5)

Middle childhood (6-14)

Adolescence (15-17)

Youth and early adulthood (18-29)

Adulthood

Old age

Risk factors

  • Income poverty

  • Poor nutrition

  • Maternal infections

  • Environmental pollution

  • Poor care

  • Domestic violence

  • Inadequate basic infrastructure and public services

  • Income poverty

  • Poor nutrition

  • Infection and disease

  • Environmental pollution

  • Poor care and cognitive stimulation

  • Domestic violence

  • Inadequate basic infrastructure and public services

  • Income poverty

  • Poor nutrition

  • Lack of parental support

  • Low availability and quality of schools

  • Domestic and community violence

  • Early pregnancy and marriage

  • Child labour

  • Discriminatory social institutions and norms

  • Child soldiers

  • Early pregnancy and marriage of unemployed adolescent girls out of school

  • No adequate vocational training in rural areas and distance to schools far from home

  • Limited access to finance or co-operatives due to status as minors

  • Discrimination in getting ‘decent’ jobs due to status as minors although legally employable

  • Exclusion from youth support programmes due to age

  • Work in hazardous conditions (considered child labour)

  • Income poverty

  • Poor nutrition

  • Lack of parental support

  • Anti-social peers

  • Low availability and quality of schools

  • Inadequate sexual and reproductive health (SRH) services

  • Domestic and community violence

  • Lack of information on and voice in decision-making processes

  • Discriminatory social institutions and norms

  • Risky behaviours (disengagement from school, substance abuse, violent and criminal activities, soldiering)

  • Risky behaviours (substance abuse)

  • Lack of voice and participation in decision-making processes

  • Lack of social protection

  • Crime and violence

  • Lack of voice and participation in decision-making processes

  • Lack of social protection

  • Crime and violence

Poor well-being outcomes

  • Maternal mortality

  • Premature birth

  • Low birth weight

  • Infant mortality

  • Physical and cognitive deficits

  • Infant and child morbidity and mortality

  • Poor physical and intellectual growth

  • Deficit in psychosocial skills

  • Failure to enrol in school

  • School drop-out

  • Low school performance

  • Poor income

  • Work in hazardous and exploitative labour

  • Health complications from early pregnancy

  • Low school performance

  • Deficit in psychosocial skills

  • Lack of employment

  • Work in hazardous and exploitative labour

  • Poor health status

  • Suicide and premature death

  • Income poverty

  • Illiteracy

  • Joblessness and deficits in high-quality jobs

  • Poor health

  • Poor housing and infrastructure

  • Social isolation

  • Weak empowerment and participation

  • Poor life evaluation

  • Income poverty

  • Illiteracy

  • Poor health

  • Poor housing and infrastructure

  • Social isolation

  • Weak empowerment and participation

  • Poor life evaluation

Source: Authors’ elaboration.

Research shows causal risk factors over the life cycle:

  • Around birth and during early childhood, income poverty, poor nutrition, environmental risks and poor care are major causal factors for adverse outcomes, such as severe health consequences and low cognitive and physical development (Engle et al., 2007; Kroenke, 2008; Walker et al., 2007; Wachs and Rahman, 2013).

  • During the school years, low availability and quality of schools, lack of parental support, domestic and community violence, and discriminatory social institutions and norms are additional risk factors that can lead to poor school engagement (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization [UNESCO], 2009, 2010, 2011).

  • During adolescence and early adulthood, when school is no longer compulsory, and in the absence of a protective youth environment, young people may engage in risky behaviours that can then lead to severe negative outcomes, such as low school performance, poor non-cognitive skills (e.g. conscientiousness, emotional stability, empathy), joblessness, low-quality jobs, or worse, suicide and premature death (World Bank, 2007).

  • Youth aged 15-17 face particular challenges, as they have reached puberty and legal working age but are still legally minors. Girls are particularly vulnerable to early pregnancy. Moreover, young people in this age group are especially vulnerable to taking up poor-quality jobs, exposing them to health and safety hazards and low pay. While they are of legal age to work in most countries, if they are below 18 and doing hazardous work it is considered child labour according to the ILO Convention concerning the Prohibition and Immediate Action for the Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labour. This stage in life is typically decisive in how youth transition from school to work and transition out of poverty.

  • Youth aged 18-24 confront additional challenges. They are no longer protected by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and are legally considered adult in most countries. However, biological and psychological research about maturity suggests that young people in that age group may still be immature and that treating them as adults can lead to worse outcomes, especially when it comes to teen crimes.

  • During adulthood, low educational achievement and poor health become major causes of income poverty, mainly due to lower wages and higher unemployment, while the absence of social protection coverage becomes a major risk factor (International Labour Organization [ILO], 2014).

  • During old age, lack of a pension or inadequate pension contributions is a key determinant of poverty among the elderly (ILO, 2014).

Identifying disadvantaged youth

The problems of disadvantaged youth involve the interaction of risk factors, age-related transitions and public interventions. Measuring and analysing the problems of disadvantaged youth are crucial for policy-making purposes (to identify disadvantaged youth, understand the determinants of poor well-being outcomes, design better policies for youth and build more cohesive societies), as well as for monitoring and evaluation purposes (to assess the impact of current interventions and measure progress in youth well-being). Various definitions and concepts of disadvantaged youth exist; this toolkit focuses on three of its common aspects. First, “disadvantage” refers to the risk for experiencing – or the experience of – deprivation in well-being throughout the youth life phase, highlighting the important link between past experiences and future well-being outcomes. Second, the toolkit recognises the multi-dimensional nature of youth well-being, encompassing both material and non-material dimensions and objective and subjective aspects. Hence, it recognises that young people’s perceptions of their lives are important, alongside the objective dimensions (OECD, 2013). Third, the toolkit highlights the relational aspects of youth well-being, recognising that development is not just about doing better individually but about promoting social cohesion and living together in a better way.

From a policy perspective, it is also important to assess the extent of youth disadvantage. Young people who face risks in different areas that multiply and reinforce each other are already considered disadvantaged. They become further disadvantaged when these risks lead to deprivations in one or more well-being dimensions and when there are few or no effective policies in place to prevent or mitigate such risks (prevention programmes) or to remedy the negative consequences once they have occurred (second chance programmes). Policy can target two groups in the continuum of disadvantaged situations:

  • Youth at risk: young people who are exposed to risk factors but who have not yet suffered negative well-being outcomes. They require preventive measures.

  • Deprived youth: young people who already experience deprivation in one or more dimensions of well-being as a result of their exposure to risk factors. They require second chance programmes.

This categorisation is theoretical in the sense that many policies and programmes in fact serve both preventive and second chance purposes, and most youth who are deprived in one area are often at risk for further deprivation at the same time. However, the distinction is helpful to target the beneficiaries and better design programmes. The focus on disadvantaged youth in this toolkit reflects the reality in many developing countries, where the majority of the young people are often already school drop-outs and have poor-quality and low-paid jobs and little or no access to health care or social protections. These conditions make it difficult for even highly motivated youth to thrive and achieve their goals. By looking at disadvantaged youth and their obstacles, the toolkit brings attention to what policies can do to provide the most conducive environment to unlock the potential of youth.