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Do the SDGs work for young people today?

Isabelle Zhu-Maguire

Source: The United Nations

This year, 2023, marks the halfway point of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. These ‘global goals’ were created in 2015 with an expiration date set in 2030.

Hence, on the 18th-19th of September 2023, the world's leading sustainable development experts met in New York for the UN’s SDG Summit to discuss the progress on the goals.

Whilst this is certainly not the first UN SDG Summit, this year’s talks are particularly important as discussions about the future of the SDGs will likely begin.

The Summit will likely reflect the debates that are already circulating about whether the goals should continue. Do we keep them going post-2030? Or should we risk it and start all over again?

Interestingly, there is starting to be discrepancies in the ways in which different demographics talk about the future of the SDGs. Many over the ‘older’ SDG advocates maintain that it is imperative that they continue with the fear that the increasingly divided international community will be unable to come up with a new set of global goals. On the other hand, youth advocates are increasingly voicing their concerns that the current SDG agenda does not represent them and the urgency of the issues youth face today.

In line with this significant difference, this article outlines the findings of a UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) Youth new report, which attempted to use the SDGs to measure how young people in Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific are progressing towards sustainable development. This article discusses the methodology of this report, the findings and why the consideration of youth is vital for any future iteration of the ‘global goals’.

Are youth represented by the current Sustainable Development Goal framework?

The Sustainable Development Goals were created in 2015. They were designed to continue the work of the Millennium Development Goals that the UN championed from 2000-2015. These eight ‘MDGs’ have been largely hailed a success with the world experiencing decreases in poverty during this era. Hence, the SDGs were meant to continue this agenda and push for not only further development but ensure sustained momentum and an assurance that development today does not hinder the lived experiences of people tomorrow.

However, a moral conundrum occurs when youth are considered. Today’s 18 year-olds were only 10 years-old when the SDGs were created in 2015. These same 18-year olds will only be 25 when the 2030 ambitions set by the SDGs are hoped to be achieved.

Despite being too young to contribute to the creation of these goals, these 18-year-olds are the ones who have to live in the future that the global community is trying to secure through the SDGs.

So that begs the questions: Do the current Sustainable Development Goals represent the concerns of young people today? Can we use them to measure the big issues youth face, or are they unable to adequately capture the problems young people face today and into their future?

This is the context in which this UN SDSN Youth report was created. Towards an AusNZPac SDG Index uses the SDGs to measure youth progress towards achieving sustainable development by 2030 compared to the general population in Australia, New Zealand, Samoa and Fiji.

There have been multiple attempts to capture the world's progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals. Reports such as the Sustainable Development Report measure progress across countries across the world. These reports are often enormous and thus use the average values from each country.

Hence, while these sorts of reports obviously provide incredible insight into progress towards the SDGs, they incidentally miss the nuance that people experience sustainable development very differently.

One’s class, gender, race, sexual orientation, ability and age all influence the access they have to resources that help them adapt to the sustainable development challenges of our times. These factors also influence how one is perceived and treated by their governments and communities. In line with this, this report aims to add to a very important emerging tradition of adapting the SDGs to measure how marginalised populations experience sustainability.

These attempts involve an SDSN USA report that (unsurprisingly) found that one's race significantly alters Americans’ experience of health and access to resources. Similarly, Equal Measures created a SDG Gender Index that measures progress towards SDGs, separated by gender. Once again, the researchers found that people who are not men lag behind on progress towards the SDGs internationally.

This youth-centred attempt at disaggregated measurement, “Towards a Youth SDG Index”, aimed specifically to corroborate the cries of youth and the struggles that they face in Australia, New Zealand and across the Pacific. For example, young people have been at the forefront of protests and campaigns for climate action, rent freeze, Indigenous rights, and reproductive healthcare. Young people are clearly fearful of what their future holds. But many are also struggling to maintain a quality standard of living, with the cost-of-living crisis being particularly burdensome.

Youth are falling behind

What was found was hardly surprising. Youth were lagging behind the general population in challenges such as mental health, poverty, rent overburden, homelessness, and unemployment.

However what did surprise us was how little existing data there was that disaggregates by age. Issues youth care about, such as food insecurity, access to affordable and clean energy, access to reproductive health care, and access to social services, were all unmeasured (or at least inaccessible) across the region.

Hence, this report and our findings are important to researchers and policymakers for several reasons.

Firstly, it begins to extrapolate the ways the youth from the Pacific region are lagging behind, and therefore where policies need to be designed to address these challenges.

Further, the significant gaps in data that we found should also motivate organisations to begin to measure more disaggregated data and address the blindspots we uncovered.

Finally, during the aforementioned consultations we undertook, we asked the youth in attendance if they thought the SDGs represented their concerns.

One of the key statistics of the report is presented at the very end. The report finds that after being consulted about the SDG targets, 65% of the young people who participated in the study said they didn’t feel that the current global goals represented their concerns.

This figure is disheartening. How can we expect current and future generations to rally around goals that they think do not represent them or the challenges they face?

Hence, if there are any future iterations of the “global goals”, genuine and involved youth consultation needs to occur. Young peoples more ‘radical’ ideas are not fantastical, they are necessary and need to be considered at this year’s SDG Summit in New York.


Isabelle Zhu-Maguire (she/her) is a Master of International Relations student at Monash University. She is a youth network coordinator at UN's Sustainable Development Solutions Network and the founder of the Sustainable Universities Network (SUN). Isabelle has conducted research into gender and climate change as experienced by Afghan women as well as intervention in the Pacific from a Gramscian perspective.



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