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Case for change: Ensuring equal opportunity digital access for global youth

It’s in the interest of business leaders to help.

A version of this article appeared in the Spring 2021 issue of strategy+business.

In PwC’s 23rd Annual Global CEO Survey, which was undertaken before the COVID-19 pandemic, 74 percent of CEOs said they were worried about the availability of key skills. At the same time, we know that many of today’s youth — the people who will become our employees, customers, and, ultimately, our successors — aren’t getting the access to digital technologies and skills that enable them to thrive.

When schools around the world closed due to the pandemic, one in three young people — some 463 million — lost their only avenue for learning. According to a May 2020 surveyPDF by the International Labour Organization, approximately 90 percent of technical and vocational education and training centers in 126 countries reported complete closure. And more than 40 percent of employed youth were working in sectors hit hard by COVID-19PDF. More than ever, it is imperative that we take steps to close the youth digital divide.

The pandemic has accelerated existing trends and exposed, in a stark light, structural weaknesses in institutions and economies. Inequalities are rising at alarming rates for the most vulnerable in every society, particularly for the unconnected half of the world. As more facets of everyday life become increasingly digital — including education, work, healthcare, news, leisure — youth who are excluded from the digital world will almost certainly suffer long-term or permanent social and economic disenfranchisement. Unless we take action.

Youth who are excluded from the digital world will almost certainly suffer long-term or permanent social and economic disenfranchisement. Unless we take action.

This is a moment to turn a crisis into an opportunity — not only to address the economic and social impacts wrought by the pandemic, but to rebound in a way that reverses long-standing challenges and puts youth on a more equal future footing. At the same time, we can also improve the economic fitness of societies at large, giving millions of workers the skills and resources necessary to participate fully in a society and economy that are increasingly digital. To achieve these ambitious goals, however, stakeholders — including businesses — will have to think differently about the roles they play.

As Stepping forward: Connecting today’s youth to the digital future, a report written by our colleagues at PwC and UNICEF, notes, there are four stepping stones that put disenfranchised youth, and thus society as a whole, on the road to a better future.

• Connectivity. The technical elements that allow youth to get online and access the internet and digital platforms: reliable power, digital infrastructure, and devices such as computers, mobile phones, and routers.

• Access. The non-technical elements that allow youth to take advantage of opportunities once they’re connected. These include cultural acceptance of online activity, family engagement and support, native-language content, wellness and emotional resources, and mental healthcare.

• Digital literacy. The basic knowledge and skills needed to participate online. Elements include relevant educational curriculum, digital literacy programming, and awareness of online risks and dangers.

• Work-ready skills. Once they are equipped to learn in a digital world, youth need the advanced digital skills and access to trade or higher education, internships, and vocational training that allow them to succeed in the 21st-century workplace.

As we strive to deliver a more equitable future, every stakeholder has a vital role to play. Governments provide the resources, infrastructure, and regulatory framework. Communities — including schools and local NGOs — bring an understanding of local needs and expertise. Youth and youth-serving organizations champion, design, and implement pilot programs. Corporations and private capital have an essential role to play — as employers, engines of the digital economy, and investors in communities. There’s a great deal businesses can do — on their own, or in conjunction with other stakeholders.

Two such examples are Generation Unlimited and Reimagine Education. Generation Unlimited, founded in 2018, is a multi-stakeholder partnership platform that brings together public, private, not-for-profit, and multilateral organizations to expand education, training, and employment opportunities for young people across the world. As part of that objective, it is supporting Reimagine Education, a flagship initiative launched by UNICEF to connect every child and young person — some 3.5 billion by 2030 — to world-class digital solutions that offer personalized learning to leapfrog to a brighter future. By capitalizing on its unique strengths and membership, GenU helps achieve large-scale results by attracting investments, technical and financial resources, high-level advocacy, and engagement with young people.

Closing the digital divide among young people and equipping them with the access and skills they need to step into a new digital reality achieves multiple objectives. But such a complex challenge can be addressed only through an approach that examines the challenges in a fresh light. Maryam Elgoni, a youth leader from South Africa, sums up the mandate for working on these important issues: “Connecting young people to a digital future means so much…. It means that we create a future full of promise and prosperity. It means that we create a future where no one is left behind.”

Author profiles:

  • Bob Moritz is Chairman of the PwC Network.
  • Henrietta Fore is Executive Director of UNICEF.
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