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SWP publication

The decisive challenge

by Sabine Balk

In brief

In Egypt, job opportunities did not keep pace with the expansion of secondary and tertiary education.

In Egypt, job opportunities did not keep pace with the expansion of secondary and tertiary education.

Political and social risks abound where the population share of young people is large. At the same time, economic opportunities arise if certain preconditions are met.

Humanity is still growing, but in many developing countries and emerging markets demographic change has set in, with more people in the age group of 15 to 24 than in the one under 15. Experts speak of a “youth bulge” when the youth make up more than one fifth of a nation’s entire population. The debate on what this demographic scenario entails has been going on for some time and is summarised in a recent publication by the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik – SWP). 

According to the authors, the statistics show that the risk of violent conflict is higher in societies that are relatively young than in those that are relatively old. The youth bulge is said to have been decisive for recent turmoil in many Arab countries. However, there are no comparable convulsions in other world regions with similar demographics such as South Asia or Southern Africa, so other issues are relevant too, the study states.

The experts point out that the risk of conflict is particularly high where country’s leaders lack legitimacy, for example, because an authoritarian regime suppresses public participation in politics or because a change of government is due soon. Protest movements, moreover, are more likely where secondary and tertiary education have been expanded, the publication argues. Examples include the student movements in Western Europe and North America in the 1960s as well as the current Arab upheavals.


Development opportunities

At the same time, the SWP team argues that a youth bulge can be auspicious in economic terms, and once again, the expansion of secondary and tertiary education is essential. The crucial point, however, is that such expansion must go along with employment opportunities. The authors consider Southeast Asia’s tiger economies positive examples. The growth of these economies was driven by a large share of young people which meant that the share of productively active people was unusually large.

The study warns, however, that the “demographic bonus” only lasts for a limited time. After 40 years or so, the ratio of economically active persons to dependent ones becomes unfavourable. In Western Europe, the youth bulge of the 1960s has begun to turn into a bulge of the aged – and this will soon happen in countries like China too. Accordingly, the expenditure on social security for senior citizens will have to rise.

The SWP authors see several consequences for development policy:

  • In developing countries that still have high birth rates of more than five children per woman, demographic change has not set in yet, so there are no economic benefits. These countries should reduce the number of children by investing in family planning, improving reproductive-health services and strengthening women’s rights to sexual self-determination.
  • Better primary education leads to a greater demand for secondary and tertiary education. Expanding those sectors, however, must go along with the growth of businesses and the creation of jobs. Where that is not the case, serious conflict rather than any demographic dividend becomes likely, as is evident in North Africa and the Middle East today.
  • Countries like Brazil, Chile or Vietnam, where the youth bulge is set to give way to a bulge of the aged deserve support for designing safety nets for senior people.

The implications of demographic change vary from place to place, the authors write. Among other things, they expect more migration between developing countries and emerging markets. Unless development policymakers take demographic issues into account, the SWP warns, they will not be able to draft effective measures.

Sabine Balk