05/16/2012 03:57 pm ET Updated Jul 16, 2012

A Generation in Revolt

This week, young protestors took to the streets across Spain, setting fire to cars and hurling objects at police to protest mass unemployment. It was just the latest in a string of political transformations -- from Tunis to Tripoli, New York to Santiago -- driven by young men and women trapped without jobs or channels for political expression.

More than 3 billion people under the age of 30 have become a new center of gravity in global affairs. Empowered by new technologies and hit hard by the global economic downturn -- young people are three times more likely than adults to be unemployed -- that demographic is reshaping how leaders engage their populations, and each other.

In a dusty colonial palace on the outskirts of Tunis, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stood before several hundred young activists this spring and delivered a message that the United States is refocusing its foreign policy on the so-called "youth bulge." "The fact is today, the world ignores youth at its peril," she announced. "The needs and concerns of young people have been marginalized too long."

Young people face disparate challenges -- but they also share common aspirations and frustrations. Ninety percent of the world's new youth majority is in the developing world. Many have grown up, thanks to Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, with a view beyond their own borders, to a world of freedoms and economic opportunities they lack. Denied a way to make a living and be heard, those young people can be among the great challenges to global security -- a ticking time bomb, Clinton argued, of "frustration and instability that can be exploited by extremists and criminals."

But the story of the Arab Spring, and of student protests around the world, is also one of young people as a force for progress.

In many parts of the developing world, young entrepreneurs have proved to be an unmatched reservoir of economic potential, innovating and creating the new businesses that are the backbone for economic growth. Young activists have dislodged repressive regimes and are leveraging new technologies to do so more nimbly than prior generations. Twenty years ago, a Polish trade union took a decade to dislodge a repressive government. In Tunisia, it took a month.

Young people also present a new opportunity to cut through stale thinking and old enmities. In the West Bank last month, in the shadow of the hulking concrete and razor wire barrier that separates Israelis and Palestinians, a 15-year-old student named Doha told me she was studying so she could "see all sides of the issues, not just [her] own. Adults say we can't talk -- I say we can." That thinking has propelled online platforms like the "YaLa" young leaders' initiative -- a network of more than 50,000 young Israelis and Palestinians committed to Middle East peace.

As one Indian official put it, the youth bulge "will be a dividend if we empower our young. It will be a disaster if we fail to put in place a policy and framework where they can be empowered."

For the United States' part, Clinton outlined an ambitious plan to prioritize youth in American diplomacy and development. She announced the Office of Global Youth Issues in Washington, a first in the State Department's history, and outlined a plan in which U.S. consulates and embassies around the world will tap councils of local youth for policy and program ideas. "If there's a problem out there, Clinton said, "I have no doubt that an enterprising young man or woman is trying to solve it." I saw that principle in action as I launched several such councils across the Middle East and North Africa last month. There and around the world, young people convened by the United States have generated innovative projects that benefit their communities, from career training to healthcare.

Harnessing the potential of this moment will require more action from governments, businesses, and young people themselves.

Governments need to create space for young activists to be heard and for young entrepreneurs to find capital. The private sector needs to emphasize youth mentorship, training, and hiring in both their corporate social responsibility activities and their core business practices.

But ultimately it falls to young men and women to defend their rights. Young people, particularly in places where they have long been marginalized, can be justifiably cynical. To make good on its promise, this generation will have to continue to stand up and participate -- not just in the moment of protest, but in the building of sustainable institutions for years to come. As a young Tunisian blogger named Wallada wrote: "negativism and resignation do not build a country."

Nor do they build a world.

Ronan Farrow, a lawyer, journalist and activist, is currently Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's adviser for Global Youth Issues.