Credit: Illustration by Sara Schwartz

It's not a great time to be young and trying to build a financial future. Nationwide, about 1 in 6 young people aged 16 to 24 is neither employed nor in school right now, according to a recent report called "Opportunity Road: The Promise and Challenge of America's Forgotten Youth."

That's 6.7 million young people throughout the country who are not able to support themselves or to move forward by furthering their education or gaining work experience. The report is based on research by America's Promise Alliance, Civic Enterprises and Peter D. Hart Research Associates.

Many young people in New York are experiencing this lack of opportunity. The unemployment rate among Long Island's 16- to 24-year-olds is more than double the 7.2 percent rate found across the Island as a whole, according to Department of Labor statistics. The state has established New York Youth Works programs in 12 areas -- including Brookhaven, Hempstead, Mount Vernon, New Rochelle and Yonkers -- to focus on creating jobs among low-income youth.

But even if members of this generation are down, they're not out -- and they're certainly not giving up. Nationally, nearly nine out of 10 surveyed in this age group know it's important for them to have a good job to have the life they want. And 77 percent say they are the ones who must take personal responsibility for their future success. According to research conducted by Demos, 7 out of 10 believe the American dream is achievable for their generation.

The hope young people have for their future is not idle. While their situation seems dire, there are many examples of young people trying to turn things for the better. Through tomorrow, you can see some of this optimism firsthand online at

SparkAction, a national advocacy and media organization, along with the White House Council for Community Solutions and several other partners, launched a contest challenging young people to find new pathways to jobs and education in their local communities. The SparkOpportunity challenge emphasizes something we should all remember: It's important to bring young people into the conversation about the economy.

We need to do all we can to encourage the next generation to be effective problem solvers, not complainers overwhelmed by negative outcomes. Besides, there may be brilliant untapped ideas out there that none of the more "mature" leaders have thought of. With a little guidance and mentoring, these fresh ideas could have a positive impact.

SparkAction and its partners make the point that there are many young people out there with ideas that could improve their communities, but they are rarely heard at a high level. The challenge amplifies these voices.

Young people from around the metropolitan area are participating. One entrant from Bronxville has proposed an employment program administered at the grassroots level and driven by the needs of local hospitals, schools and other human services. Another from Queens has suggested programs organized through colleges and universities that would allow students to trade community service hours for college credits.

Readers can go online to check out these ideas and others from around the country -- and vote for their favorites. The winners will receive start-up grants, iPads, and mentoring from business and policy leaders to see their ideas brought to life.

Reviewing the proposals, one might be tempted to criticize them. But each entry shows we can involve young people. They have a role and a vested interest in learning how to address the lack of economic opportunity that faces millions of them.

Jennifer Wheary is a senior fellow at Demos, a public policy organization in Manhattan.