Of all the macro trends likely to transform the world as we know it, this one merits special attention from policymakers: The largest youth population in human history is alive today and moving steadily toward adulthood. If properly supported, these young people could prove an unprecedented force for human advancement. Or, if their needs and aspirations are left unmet, they could become a disruptive force that unleashes increasing instability or even violence. The critical thing for policymakers to grasp is that we still have the opportunity to influence which of these outcomes—or something in between—will transpire. But time is short and the need for action is urgent.

Concentrated in Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia, this surge of young people could grow the global economy and elevate millions out of poverty, change social norms that discriminate against women and girls, reform governance to make it more legitimate and inclusive, and create a better future for entire countries and regions. They could drive major progress toward a more just and prosperous world.

But another outcome is also possible. The global economy is not ready to absorb this cascade of young people and too many education systems prepare youth poorly for twenty-first century jobs. Political systems remain far too rigid and do not adequately engage or respond to youth concerns. Widespread violent conflict around the world is impeding the successful transition of young people to happy and productive adulthoods. Global refugee flows, already at a post-World War II peak, could grow even more as young people seek to fulfill their needs and aspirations elsewhere. The inability to effectively channel the aspirations of these young people carries the potential for widespread instability or even violence. 

Youth everywhere want to be valued and feel a sense of belonging—a shared trait that can yield either positive or negative consequences. Communities can engage youth and give them opportunities to channel this energy. But extremist movements recognize a more nefarious opportunity and play on these sentiments, much the way gangs have for decades. Even in regions without active extremist or violent movements, youth who feel economically, socially, or politically excluded can be radicalized via the Internet.

Consider the statistics. According to the United Nations Population Fund, there are currently 1.8 billion youth in the world, with 89 percent of the world’s ten- to twenty-four-year-olds living in developing countries. Somini Sengupta points out that there are 300 million people under the age of fifteen in India alone. In the Middle East, more than 250 million are under the age of thirty, says Navtej Dhillon. In Iran, two-thirds of the population is under the age of thirty-five, and in Pakistan, two-thirds of the population is under the age of thirty, according to articles by Omid Memarian and Tara Nesvaderani, and Michael Kugelman. And Kingsley Ighobor points out that Africa’s current population of 200 million young people between the ages of fifteen and twenty-four is set to double by 2045. In Chad and Niger alone, the UN Population Fund says half of all citizens are under the age of sixteen. In short, the youth of the world are concentrated in the areas least prepared to absorb them.

Without question, other global trends will also shape the future profoundly. As a recent strategy paper published by the Atlantic Council points out, violent conflict is spreading and the risk of great power conflict is higher than at any time in decades. Middle classes are growing but they are increasingly frustrated. Authoritarianism is spreading. Global migration and urbanization are escalating rapidly. And climate change threatens to increase competition and conflict over water and other natural resources.

Nonetheless, compared with these other trends, the youth boom stands out for carrying the largest potential benefits for the world (rather than simply risks) and for being the trend most susceptible to human influence in the short to medium term. Those two factors suggest the need for a deliberate and focused strategy that involves governments, universities, international organizations, businesses, and other local and global organizations positioned to contribute.

What should such a strategy look like?

First, focus on education, particularly at the secondary (high school) level where there is a major shortage of qualified teachers, particularly in Africa and the Middle East, and where curricula do not adequately prepare students for the job market or give them the “soft skills” (such as communications, critical thinking, and self-control) they need to succeed as employees or as citizens. Both of these challenges can be addressed through well-established practices. Research shows that well-trained teachers are the single most effective step toward higher student achievement. And a recent study published by the U.S. Agency for International Development shows that five critical, teachable soft skills increase the success of youth in the workforce.

Second, focus on better preparing youth for the job market and successfully navigating the transition from school to work. To prepare youth for the workforce, it is necessary to revamp formal school and university curricula in concert with the private sector. Schools and universities can also develop career centers, projects that let students work on real-world problems and interact with employers, and other active learning activities and internships. In addition, youth can be better prepared for this transition by enhancing informal programs at youth centers, sports clubs, libraries, and other existing hubs in their communities.

Third, focus on engaging youth more actively in their communities. This can happen through regular interactions between youth and local governing institutions. It can also happen through youth-led volunteer initiatives that give youth real-world experience and also a sense of self-worth. Schools and universities—not to mention religious, sports, or youth organizations—can systematically provide, encourage, or even require community service. Providing youth with the opportunity to exercise community leadership and effect visible community change provides them with the very things they seek—the opportunity be valued by others, a sense of belonging and connection, and a true understanding of how they can create positive change.

Most importantly, involve youth themselves. All too often, we hear rhetoric about engaging youth but do not actually see institutions build in opportunities for youth to share their perspectives, shape the agenda meant to help them, and provide authentic youth leadership. Unsurprisingly, this leads to well-intentioned efforts that fail to address the real needs and aspirations of young people and also leave youth feeling marginalized and excluded from the decisions that affect their lives.

Productively engaging the world’s young people is the opportunity of our time, and positive consequences will resound for decades. Leaders at every level of society, and across sectors, can seize this opportunity by equipping youth to be successful in their personal, professional, and civic lives and by giving youth themselves the chance to lead change in their communities. There are substantial risks if we do not act. And there is little time left to invest in the young people who will influence all of our destinies.

Kristin M. Lord is the president and CEO of IREX. Follow on Twitter @kristin_lord.