Supporting young potential

Last week, 15 year-old Julia Lipnitskaia swivelled and spun her way into Olympic history. Her performance in the team figure skating competition – set to music from Schindler’s list – was heartbreakingly beautiful.

The petite Russian ice-princess displayed gravity-defying flexibility, expert execution, and an emotional maturity rivalling that of competitors many years her senior. It was enough to help her country secure its first gold on home turf at the Sochi games, and make her the second youngest Olympic gold medallist in figure-skating history.

Lipnitskaia isn’t the only bright young thing at the games. Her Russian teammate 17 year-old Adelina Sotnikova won the women’s individual figure skating event. The Americans landed their third ever Winter Olympic “sweep,” by taking all three medals in the men’s ski slopestyle – the winners were aged between 19 and 22. Japan has a 15 year-old snowboarder, while Germany has a ski jumper the same age – both displayed talent enough to make any fellow countryman proud.

It is hardly surprising that young people do well at international sports competitions, given their bodies tend to be more limber compared with older counterparts. Which is great, because nations love watching their athletes win. The experience is, generally speaking, uplifting, enjoyable, and socially cohesive.

Getting any athlete to an Olympic gold however involves hours of sweat, hard work, and a great deal of support. Sometimes this support comes from regional and national programmes designed to nurture young talent. Sometimes it comes from a willing coach or mentor, such as a senior athlete.

There is a lesson here that can be applied to the youth unemployment crisis. It is vital to formulate policies that nurture society’s youth by developing their promise and diverse range of talents.

Global growth may be sputtering back into life, but young people are still falling behind. At the latest gathering of who’s who among global political thinkers, the World Economic Forum’s annual conference at Davos, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) warned that the world could yet undergo a “jobless recovery.”

The organisation emphasised that relying on the current weak rates of growth will not be enough to generate the 42 million jobs required to accommodate new labour market entrants. The ILO has also consistently pointed out that the young are three times more likely to be unemployed than adults, stacking the odds against them.

This is not only damaging to the confidence of those concerned, but risks chronic damage. The OECD’s Employment Outlook 2013 warns “youth need to be actively supported to avoid long-term ‘scarring’ effects as a result of prolonged unemployment and low-income spells early in their careers.” This individual scarring can lead to deep structural unemployment problems decades on, due to a loss of human capital and vital skills.

The EU Youth Guarantee is a positive example of an actionable short-term policy to address some of the challenges facing young people, but it needs to be much more ambitious. Structural reforms, such as making sure curricula keep pace with a changing labour market, are also fundamental in order to develop the skills needed for society to succeed in the long run.

Making sure young people don’t get left behind during the recovery is key to a sustainable economic future. Avoiding action now means that in a matter of years, an entire generation’s talent will have been wasted. This will pose a serious conundrum for heavily indebted governments expected to find funds to support those unemployed through social welfare provision. Much better to invest in young potential today.

Let’s not forget that, in the end, everyone feels good when we take home the gold.

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