Decisions for today’s youth
A screech of brakes; black weals of burnt rubber on tarmac: the sickening crunch of metal against metal. Then an uncanny silence as bystanders gather and someone steps forward to open the car door. ‘Stolen,’ says the policeman. ‘Serves him right,’ says someone in the crowd, ‘crazy young hooligan’.
In the crowd a young man shakes his head over the tangle of metal, winces as the broken body is eased out of the car, then continues on his way to the bank. He dare not let himself be distracted. This is his big chance to make it. If he can persuade the bank manager to give him a loan he has decided to set up his own repair business. It’s a risk, it will be hard starting out on his own, getting known, finding new customers. But that’s the choice he has made.
Two young men: two risks, two choices, One risking his life; the other his livelihood. One deciding on speed, the other entrepreneurial initiative. Risk-taking is a natural and necessary part of growing up, making choices. But there is an alarming increase in self-destructive risk -taking among young people.
The world’s healthiest age group - people aged 10-24 - are being threatened with two new epidemics. They have survived the vulnerable years of early childhood, but are now being maimed and killed in their thousands by accidents and suicide.
As fast as public health services gain ground against diseases like polio, smallpox and tuberculosis, that advantage is wiped out by the increasing numbers of young people being rushed into the emergency rooms of hospitals and health centres the world: over dead on arrival - from drunken driving, from motor-cycle and car crashes, from drug and alcohol overdoses.
In rich countries like the US and Japan accidents cause one-third of deaths among 10 to 24 year-olds. In poorer countries, with their fast-growing cities and their land increasingly criss-crossed with tarmac, accidents are beginning to rival infectious and parasitic diseases in the toll they take of young lives. In Venezuela, for example, 45 per cent of deaths among 10 to 24 year-olds are from accidents. And with few ambulances and even fewer emergency rooms, someone involved in an accident in Kenya is nine times more likely to die as someone in the US. An accident victim in India is up to 15 times more likely to die than one in the UK. That’s not all. The World Health Organization estimates that for every accidental death three people will be permanently disabled.
But it is pointless to throw up our hands in despair at such horror stories. Young people involved in accidents and suicide attempts are the unnecessary victims of a necessary process; learning to be adult. The challenge is to make that process less painful.
In the years between 10 and 24 human beings have to transform themselves: from children to parents, from dependence to independence, from protected to protective. And that takes a lot of doing: a lot of learning and experimenting, of trying and succeeding, of failing - and trying again.
Jean Piaget, the famous Swiss psychologist, maintained that adolescence was the age at which human beings first develop ‘an awareness of how things might be’. For many young people that awareness gives them faith in the future and courage to tackle the problems which face them.
But for others the problems can seem - insoluble - and awareness for them leads to despair. As WHO points out: ‘those countries with an increasing unemployment rate among adolescents also appear to have an increase in the adolescent suicide rate.’ In Japan, for instance, there are two suicide ‘peaks: one at school-leaving age when the competition for jobs begins and a second around age 54, when many people are compulsorily retired but with too small a pension and the competition for jobs begins once more.
Suicide attempts in older people, however, tend to result from depression. In the young they are more likely to be ‘impulsive responses to an intolerable social situation,’ according to the WHO Study Group on Youth: the proverbial ‘cry for help’ in other words. And indeed in Europe suicide attempts among the young are rising far faster than completed suicides, with attempts by people in the lowest social class outnumbering those in the professional class by eight to one: a poignant vote of no confidence in the future.
Better health and better education are two major advantages that can give today’s young people a better start than their parents. And they need all the help they can get. They will be undergoing more changes and will have to make more decisions in the next few years than any previous generation.
Not only will they have to move from childhood to adulthood. But with cities sprawling ever larger, television and radio networks encircling the earth, and roads and machines starting to push their way into every village - more and more of today’s young people also stand at the threshold between traditional and modern ways of life.
Some will never have to step over the threshold. In many rural areas a young person’s future is already mapped out: for him the ploughing and planting, for her the hoe and the cooking pot - just like their parents before them. Society will cushion their transition to adulthood, arranging their marriages, helping raise their children, measuring their use of alcohol and other drugs and teaching them the skills of parents and farmer, For better or worse, there will be few choices here.
But change is coming fast. And many young people are being swept along with it. Schools have come to the village, the first light bulb swings above the village store. Factories, offices, shops and cinemas beckon from the growing cities. Today three-quarters of the world’s people live in rural areas. But by the year 2000 half the world’s people will live in cities. And many of those migrating to cities - between 20 and 40 per cent in rich and poor countries alike - are aged 15 to 24.
Changes of this magnitude - country to town, field to factory - leave the young very vulnerable. Cut off from the past, they can be blown in any direction. And their landing is unlikely to be a soft one. In the modern world the cushions of tradition and the extended family are gone, leaving young people to face new challenges with little support.
The most important thing is to find a job. Though they have health on their side, young people are handicapped by their lack of experience. In the lines of people waiting for jobs it is young hands that are usually left idle in rich and poor countries alike. In Syria, for example, 15 to 24 year-olds account for 70 per cent of the unemployed. In India they make up 67 per cent and in Ghana 60 per cent.
Little wonder that finding a job becomes an obsession. In Britain employment is the subject that most concerns l5-year-olds. The other main worry worldwide is exams. And it’s not hard to see why. In Latin America, for instance, the number of years of education is directly linked to the chances of finding a job.
There is nearly three times as much unemployment among young people without schooling compared with those who completed high school.
Though many fail to find formal education or training, the majority of young people in most countries do eventually carve out a niche for themselves; behind a charcoal brazier on the streets of Manila roasting bananas for sale; dodging in and out of the traffic selling newspapers in Chicago; or looking under the open bonnets of broken-down cars in Lagos.
Most find a way of making a living. But few find an occupation that makes the most of their skills, creativity and potential. In this sense education is a mixed blessing. Often it simply turns young people away from the countryside and gives them hopes they will never be able to fulfil. Disappointment and frustration, laced with the pressures of modem city life, make a bitter brew.
And, in their search for comfort, self-expression and excitement, many of today’s young people risk destroying the good health that is one of their most important assets. The proof is in the statistics. In some countries what should be the healthiest age group - 10 to 24 year olds - is the only one in which mortality rates are actually rising. They are rising because of the ills of modern society: traffic accidents, suicide, drug and alcohol abuse.
A picture seems to be emerging of youthful energy thwarted and rejected, of youthful potential wasted. Such may be part of the process of growing up. But the mortality statistics are not an inevitable by-product of risk-taking in adolescence. As adults we cannot wash our hands that easily.
The highly structured schooling system is the most striking obstacle we put in their way.
We challenge our young people to jump through the regular hoops of the exam system. We reward those who conscientiously keep their heads down and memorise book after book. And we encourage them to take on board aspirations and skills that will be of little use.
Frustration is building upon the dole lines. Pent up energy needs an outlet. We should not be surprised that young people increasingly experiment with high speed, with drugs and with death itself.
This special report appeared in the tough choices for today's youth - special issue for international youth year issue of New Internationalist. You can buy this magazine or, to get stories like this one through your door every month, subscribe.