What is hindering young people
to reach their potential?

The longterm change of health, poverty, and
access to education – and our possibilities
for the future

by Max Roser

based on our work at www.OurWorldInData.org

Context of this presentation:

A life in poor health, in material conditions of extreme poverty, and with little opportunity for education was the life that almost all our ancestors lived in. This was no one’s fault in particular, these are simply the living conditions that we always live in. Certainly it is not the fault of the individual people who grow up in these poor conditions.

If you live in a society of subsistence farmers there is no way for you to leave poverty, if you live in a society where infectious diseases are prevalent you are not able to protect yourself from it, and if there is no educational system that allows you to dedicate years of your life to learning how to read, write and understand the world then you won’t learn it. Poor living conditions cannot be changed individually, poor living conditions can only change for entire societies.

If we are thinking about what is possible in the future we are thinking about what is possible for our children. For children even more than for adults it is true that the chances for your life depend very little about what you can do for yourself and very much on the circumstances that you are born in. This is the question that I am asking in this slide show: How did the conditions that children were born into change over the last decades and what can we hope for for our children?

The way I want to look at this is by focussing how the circumstances in which children find themselves allow them to develop their potential. In societies with poor health their potential is cut short by debilitating diseases or in the worst cases an early death, in poverty children lack the material means and freedom from work to develop, and without access to education they lack the input required to learn and flourish.

The focus of children is also a helpful perspective because if children develop well it has benefits for all of us (link to a new video I made with 'Kurz Gesagt'). Children that never develop their full potential keep away from all of us what otherwise might be – no one will ever enjoy what their creativity could enable them to do, not the children themselves and not anyone else.

Few have a positive view on how the world is changing.

Often the predominant worry is that things will become worse. So that few believe that a much better world is possible.


The number of children increased from less than 1 billion in 1950 to almost 2 billion today.
In the future however this trend will not continue. The number of children in the world will hardly increase, we are close to 'peak child'.

In my post 'When will the world reach 'peak child'?' I discuss how uncertain these projections are and how investments in education today will result into a much smaller world population at the end of the century.

The literature on the drivers of falling fertility I have recently summarized here.


Child mortality in the past. In every country of the world every third child died before it was 5 years old.

Press play to see the change since then

Looking at this global change as the average child mortality rate.

In 1800, 43% of the world's population died as children. By 1950 it was down to 20%. In the latest data it is below 5% – ten-fold lower.

Which bigger success has humanity ever achieved?

This progress continues.

One of the main killers of children is malaria. Here is the perspective on the global change in the last 15 years.

In many parts of the world malaria has been eradicated (in the US in 1951) and around the world, malaria mortality figures are falling. In the last 15 years the number of malaria deaths was almost halved.

But in many countries child mortality is still high and we know that children are dying from preventable diseases.

SDG 3.2 is to reduce reduce every country's child mortality to less than 2.5%. Projections by the UN Population Division show that almost no country in Sub-Saharan-Africa will achieve the SDGs.

Countries with poor health will have to develop much faster than the UN projects and much, much faster than the countries that are rich today.

[These projections and also the observations on child mortality are uncertain: The publications by the IHME differ from the UN:
Line chart
Scatter of UN vs IHME]

Extreme poverty

Today's rich countries became rich very recently.

The share of the world population in extreme poverty declined from almost everyone to below 10%.

Here is the research on this.

Still every tenth person in the world living in extreme poverty.

Poverty is a state that individual people often leave and fall back into again.

An individual falling into poverty might come down to a seemingly small life event, like an unforeseen expense; for example for a medical emergency.

Poverty is nobody's fault. Poverty is the default state of the world.

What is new is prosperity. In the past everyone was poor.

It is definitely the fault of people being born into a poor society.
Not people get rich, societies get rich

Overriding differences in skills and effort, empirical research finds that simply the place where people live explains two-thirds of the variation of individual incomes around the world. Your income depends much more on the level of income, education, health of the society you are born into than on your own efforts, no matter how hard you try.

And many children are born into poverty. The number of children per woman (the fertility rate) is higher where a larger share of the population is living in extreme poverty.

What will be the world of the next generation?

SDG 1 is to "End poverty in all its forms everywhere".
Projections by Crespo Cuaresma et al. published in 'Nature' this year show the number of people in extreme poverty will continue to fall, but the world is not on track to reach SDG 1. If current trends continue extreme poverty will become an almost exclusively African problem – and the number of people in extreme poverty on the African continent will not fall much.

Reference: Crespo Cuaresma et al. (2018) – Will the Sustainable Development Goals be fulfilled? Assessing present and future global poverty. Online here.
[Projections of the share of the world population in extreme poverty are here.]

And Africa is the world region which will be the home of most young people in the future. At the end of this century every second child in the world will live in Africa, according to the UN projections.

But again, how much the population of Africa will grow in the coming decades will depend on what our generation does today. In my post 'When will the world reach 'peak child'?' I discuss how uncertain these projections are and how investments in education today will result into a much smaller world population at the end of the century.

But what is clear from was achieved in the past decades is that it is possible to end extreme poverty. We have done it many, many times.

The trouble however is that only few know about this global development. Many falsely believe that extreme poverty is on the rise.

The public concern is often about how things are getting worse. The discussion instead should be about how we can acclearate the progress that is already happening.


During the last two centuries many more children had the chance to obtain an education.

The map shows the average number of years of schooling in 1870. By moving the time-slider below the map you can explore the change since then.

With increasing educational attainment the share of the population who is literate started to increase: in 1930 only one third of the world population was literate%; by 2014 the share had increased to 85%.

We should definitely not gloss over the serious concerns for the next generation. In many parts of the world children suffer from serious consequences of undernourishment.

What is possible in the future?

We can see how the world will change when we compare the education of the old generation with the generation of the young generation.
The next slide shows in which direction the world will change.

The younger generation is much better educated.

We can also model the change of the education of the world population in more detail.

This chart shows IIASA's projection of the world population by level of education until the end of the century.
By 2100, almost no one without formal education; 3 billion with post secondary; more than 7 billion minds who will have received at least secondary education.

From the perspective on the change over time it is surprising that few think positively about the change that was achieved.
And looking ahead at the challenges that the young generation will face it is clear that we need to understand what we were able to achieve. Optimism and engagement is what we need to get ahead.

Better health
Fewer in poverty
Better education

We are in a strong position, to work on the big problems collectively. And this work is desperately needed, for many of the next generation there are still large obstacles to develop their potential. A premature death, lack of economic security, and little access to good edcuation are still very common.

Conclusion of this presentation:

The question that this presentation asked was ’What is hindering young people to reach their potential?’ and we saw a large positive development over the last two centuries.
But at the same time it is very clear from looking at the data and the projections that we are facing large challenges – key development goals will not be met without a substantial improvement of past trajectories.

But the rewards from these efforts would be large. Most importantly for the children of the next generation.
But also for everyone else as their creativity and work would benefit everyone in the world, those currently in extreme poverty and those in the well-off places elsewhere.

How many innovators could the world see if all children had chances to realize their potential? There are likely many Einsteins and Bill Gates living in poor villages today and it is about the change in living conditions which will decide whether they can reach their potential or whether they remain stuck in bad health, poverty, and without access to education.

Extra slides

Our World in Data

The beta-version of our new 'SDG Tracker'. The first publication that allows policy makers and citizens around the world to see how the world is doing on the way to the Sustainable Development Goals.

Journalism today.

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