This blog is intended to go along with Population: An Introduction to Concepts and Issues, by John R. Weeks, published by Cengage Learning. The latest edition is the 13th (it will be out in January 2020), but this blog is meant to complement any edition of the book by showing the way in which demographic issues are regularly in the news.

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Sunday, February 18, 2018

Is the Youth Bulge a Huge Threat?

Thanks to my son, Greg Weeks, for linking me to a recent political blog on "Getting the Youth Bulge Wrong." The blog site is called "Political Violence @ a Glance" and is hosted by two political science professors, although the author of this particular post, Aaron Stanley, is a program assistant at the Carnegie Corporation in New York. In short, he argues vociferously against the idea that the youth bulge in Africa is the cause of violence in that region of the world. Who is he arguing with? It turns out that the source of his angst on this issue is a 1986 report from the Office of Global Issues at the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency that was partially declassified, albeit heavily redacted, in 2011. In particular, the references are redacted, so we do not know where the CIA was getting its information. No matter, Aaron Stanley is hopping mad!
Africa’s population is growing and quickly. Even those who are generally unaware of happenings on the continent, will be alert to the fact that half of the world’s population growth is projected to be in Africa by 2050. This strikes fear into all but an optimistic few.
The fear comes from an assumed correlation between the size of the youth population and insecurity popularized by the “youth bulge” hypothesis. The youth bulge is defined as “20 percent or more of the population in the 15 to 24 age group.” As a result, there has been no shortage of experts who have drawn on this hypothesis to opine on the potential of Africa’s youth for violence. There are two major problems with this. First, most researchers and commentators use aggregate numbers for Sub-Saharan Africa, which is misleading and largely inaccurate. Second, the data show that almost every country in Sub-Saharan Africa has consistently maintained a population of 15-24-year-olds well over the youth bulge’s 20 percent threshold. A deeper inspection of the data eliminates a correlation between the percentage of youth in African nations and violence.
Let's get real here. Yes, the population projections by the UN Population Division and others do suggest that sub-Saharan Africa will be contributing the greatest number of new people to the world's population over the next few decades, as I have noted before. This generates a concern about the resources available to meet the needs of these people, but that doesn't necessarily "strike fear into all but an optimistic few." Indeed, the 1986 CIA report does not purport to show that a youth bulge automatically leads to violence, even though that is what Mr. Stanley seems to think it says.

Importantly, demographers do NOT agree on the above definition of the youth bulge. Indeed, here is what Debbie Fugate and I wrote in the introduction to our edited volume on "The Youth Bulge: Challenge or Opportunity:"
As you will see in this book, authors have varying ideas of exactly what constitutes a youth bulge, and there is no single definition that is agreed to by everyone. What can be agreed upon, however, are the following propositions:
1) a society with a young population is very different in a vast array of dimensions than an older population;
2) a long-term increase in the size of the youth population, with each cohort being larger than the previous one, is one of the biggest challenges that any society will ever face--how a society responds to this challenge will shape the future in either a positive or negative direction. It is almost impossible for any society to be unscathed by such a change; and
3) a genuine one-time bulge, in which young adults are a higher percentage of either the younger or older populations, is often known as the “demographic dividend,” and this too can be used by society for its own good, or ignored—in which case it represents a wasted opportunity at best, or a real problem at worst.
We then go on to discuss the crucial difference between a youthful population and a youth bulge in terms of potential societal and policy consequences. It is unfortunate that Mr. Stanley didn't bother to track down our book, especially since Dr. Fugate has worked for the U.S. government for the last decade so we can rest assured that the government has good intellectual resources at its disposal.  

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