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The Battle of the ‘Youth Bulge’

Prepared by: Lionel Beehner
April 27, 2007


Societies with high birthrates are prone to conflict, demographers find. That is especially true when there are a disproportionate number of young men between the ages of fifteen and thirty (NYT). The reasons are multifold: This “youth bulge” results in a large reservoir of potential recruits to radical organizations, as this new Backgrounder outlines. It helps explain the surge in Taliban recruitment in South Asia, the presence of militant groups like MEND in the Niger Delta, and the ongoing tensions in the Palestinian territories. Between 1970 and 1999, 80 percent of the world’s civil conflicts occurred in countries where 60 percent or more of the population was under the age of thirty, according to a new report by Population Action International. Countries most prone to youth-bulge-related unrest are in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and Africa, where child soldiers are prevalent.

Another theory, advanced by the German social scientist Gunnar Heinsohn, is that youths in large numbers—particularly second or third sons—are prone to violence because they are driven by social advancement, ambition, and a yearning for respectability. “Young men start fighting for prestige and standing, positions their society simply can’t provide in sufficient numbers,” writes Jonas Attenhofer in the Jerusalem Post. This theory debunks the “clash of civilizations” school of thought to explain the spasms of religiously motivated violence in the Middle East. “If you follow this argument to its logical end point, then the religion of Islam, the focus of so much contemporary strategic discussion, is a great red herring,” writes Christopher Caldwell in the Financial Times. That said, of the twenty-seven nations with the largest populations of idle youth, thirteen are Muslim.

That has important policy implications for the United States. Experts point to women’s education and job-creation programs as necessary antidotes. In the Arab world in particular, where 65 percent of the population is under the age of twenty-five, CFR Senior Fellow Isobel Coleman suggests microfinance loans and “removing restrictions to female workforce participation” as ways to combat social unrest among Arab youths. Yet other solutions invite more controversy, as they touch on issues of funding reproductive health programs and family planning measures. This January 2006 CFR Task Force report on Africa scolds the Bush administration on this topic. “Population has become a neglected area of U.S. policy, overshadowed by the focus on HIV/AIDS and shunned in part because of religious and political opposition to some family planning programs,” it says. (This brief from the U.S. Agency for International Development explains American policy on funding family-planning measures overseas).

Of course, youth bulge does not solely explain social unrest, writes George Mason University’s Jack A. Goldstone. “Economic development and regime type are critical elements (PDF) influencing risks of conflict,” he writes, as are rapid urbanization and environmental degradation.

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