A new study by Population Action International (PAI), a Washington-based private advocacy group, suggests a strong correlation between countries prone to civil conflicts and those with burgeoning youth populations. Social scientists label this demographic profile “youth bulge,” and its potential to destabilize countries in the developing world is gaining wider acceptance among the American foreign policy community. The theory contends that societies with rapidly growing young populations often end up with rampant unemployment and large pools of disaffected youths who are more susceptible to recruitment into rebel or terrorist groups. Countries with weak political institutions are most vulnerable to youth-bulge-related violence and social unrest.
What are the origins of this theory?
The term was coined by German social scientist Gunnar Heinsohn in the mid-1990s but has gained greater currency in recent years, thanks to the work of American political scientists Gary Fuller and Jack A. Goldstone. They argue that developing countries undergoing “demographic transition”—or those moving from high to low fertility and mortality rates—are especially vulnerable to civil conflict. “A large proportion of young adults and a rapid rate of growth in the working-age population tend to exacerbate unemployment, prolong dependency on parents, diminish self-esteem and fuel frustrations,” writes Richard P. Cincotta, a consultant to the National Intelligence Council’s Long Range Analysis Unit.
While this kind of frustration and competition for jobs do not directly fuel violence, they do increase the likelihood these unemployed youths will seek social and economic advancement by alternative, extralegal means. “If you have no other options and not much else going on, the opportunity cost of joining an armed movement may be low,” says Michelle Gavin, CFR’s international affairs fellow. And because young people have fewer responsibilities, like families or careers to tend to, that makes them more prone to taking up arms. According to Heinsohn, this is especially the case among the youngest sons of a family, who are desperate for respectability and social advancement. “Envy against older, inheriting brothers is unleashed. So is ambition,” writes columnist Christopher Caldwell in the Financial Times.
Between 1970 and 1999, 80 percent of civil conflicts occurred in countries where 60 percent of the population or more were under the age of thirty, according to the PAI report. Today there are sixty-seven counties with youth bulges, of which sixty of them are experiencing social unrest and violence. Demographers are quick to stress that youth bulges do not solely explain these civil conflicts—corruption, ethno-religious tensions, poverty, and poor political institutions also play contributing roles—but nor do they rule out as coincidence the predilection toward social unrest among states with large youth populations
What historical examples buttress this argument?
In eighteenth-century France, a spike in population boosted demand for food, which in turn drove up inflation, reduced the purchasing power of most citizens, and sparked social unrest. To some extent, others say World Wars I and II were due to large amounts of young people (particularly in the Balkans circa 1914). Some even suggest Japan’s invasion of China in the 1930s can be partially explained by its large number of youth, while others attribute Marxist insurrections in Latin America during the 1970s and 1980s to the swelling population of the region’s unemployed youth (guerilla-related violence quelled as the number of young people diminished).
Where are youth-bulge societies most prevalent today?
Mostly in sub-Saharan Africa, southern Asia, the Middle East, and the Pacific Islands, demographers say. Sixty-two countries are considered “very young,” according to PAI, which means that two-thirds of their populations are under the age of thirty (and less than 6 percent are above the age of sixty). Countries that fit this profile include Nigeria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. The Middle East, where 60 percent of the population is under twenty-five, is also susceptible to youth-bulge-related civil strife; as are countries with high HIV/AIDS rates. “The pandemic,” according to this January 2006 CFR Task Force report on Africa, “has reversed a generation of gains in human development, hitting young and middle-aged adults of all socioeconomic classes and leaving a dangerous youth bulge.”
What other factors contribute to youth-bulge-related violence?
- Rapid urbanization. This migration pattern plays an important role because cities across the developing world lack the infrastructure, resources, or jobs to accommodate the influx of rural workers. This creates ripe conditions for black-market activities, which in turn often foster gangs and paramilitary groups.
- Heightened expectations among job seekers. The abundance of skilled labor with degrees but no jobs can foment social unrest. “There is a dire mismatch between the skill sets companies are seeking and what most regional high schools and colleges are producing,” writes Coleman about the Middle East. “The result is an explosive combination of millions of young people with high expectations and no hope of fulfilling their dreams.” A corollary to this problem, adds Gavin, is globalization and the images beamed across the world on American television. “We’re exporting this hyper version of material success,” she says.
- Environmental stresses. Youth bulges often lead to degradation of forests, water supplies, and arable land. This can create conflicts over scarce resources and generate antigovernment sympathies. This is a common characteristic of sub-Saharan Africa.
Does religion also play a contributing factor?
Yes. Young people “are often drawn to new ideas and heterodox relations, challenging older forms of authority,” writes Goldstone. But Gavin says “religion can provide an outlet that is constructive and allows youth to build social networks and find a sense of identity.” In the Muslim world, experts say large populations of idle youth are especially prone to virulent strands of Islam as an alternative force for social mobility. Of the twenty-seven largest youth-bulge societies in the world, thirteen are Muslim, according to Heinsohn.
Is youth bulge always a bad thing?
Not necessarily. With the right investments and continued progress through the demographic transition, in time large youth populations can become large, economically-productive populations that can drive economic gains—a phenomenon known as the demographic dividend. For example, the rapidly growing economies of East Asia, or in Europe, that of Ireland, all underwent small youth bulges that contributed to their countries’ strong economic outputs. “If you can educate young people and create jobs for them, they can be a boon for development,” Gavin says. She also believes it is possible for youth bulges to help shape politics for the better, citing, for example, the role that South Africa’s large youth population played in the anti-apartheid movement in the 1980s.
What are some policy prescriptions to combat youth bulge?
- Create jobs. Job creation is particularly important in the Arab world, writes CFR Senior Fellow Isobel Coleman in the Dallas Morning News. “Just to keep pace with population growth,” she writes, “the Middle East must create eighty million new jobs over the next fifteen years.” Fifty percent of the Arab world’s unemployed are between the ages of fifteen and twenty-four.
- Improve access to family planning measures. Improved reproductive health care and better access to family-planning measures, such as contraception programs, have proven effective in places like Iran, where births dropped from over six children per woman in 1979 to two per woman today. Better education programs for women can also help control the sizes of families and cause lower fertility rates.
- Reduce infant mortality rates. This can alleviate fears among couples in the developing world that their newborns might not survive, which encourages them to have more children.
- Do nothing. Heinsohn has suggested, using the violence that plagued Latin America as an example, that youth-bulge-related bloodshed often burns itself out once the youths grow up or kill off one another. “In a few decades, the era of youth-bulge wars could be over,” writes the Financial Times’ Caldwell. Yet as Silvia Azzouzi of the International Relations and Security Network, a Swiss research organization, asks: “Even if Heinsohn is right with his argument, is it ethically arguable to let people kill each other in order to reach social calm?”
How does the youth bulge affect U.S. foreign policy?
According to the CFR Independent Task Force on Africa, “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.” Many health experts agree. “Because of sensitivities surrounding the kinds of issues stressed in the Mexico City policy [which bans recipients of U.S. aid from advocating or performing abortions], overall support for family planning and reproductive health services has diminished,” says Gavin. Cincotta and Goldstone suggest that youth bulges—and linkages in general between demography and civil conflict—should force a reexamination of the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Fragile States strategy (PDF), a January 2005 plan that focuses developmental assistance on conflict-prone states.