Does a growing global youth population fuel political unrest?

Young people under 30 are the majority in many countries in the Middle East and South America, yet politicians do little or nothing for them. Is the demographics of the 'youth bulge' enough to explain the huge rise in disaffection?
• A youth heatmap of the world

Towards the end of January, Egyptian activists shared a picture on social media of some of their grey-haired countrymen. The people pictured were queuing to take part in Egypt's recent constitutional referendum. These voters were mostly aged in their 50s or above, and typed in Arabic over their faces were the damning words: "the Shameful Generation".

In Egypt, this is how some have come to see the country's revolution. For many, it is a struggle between the aspirations of a bulging younger generation – 60% of Egyptians are under 30, while the country's median age is 24.8 – and the conservatism of many of their parents.

Thousands of older Egyptians fought for years to end the regime that finally toppled in 2011, while Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, now 71, was one of the revolution's figureheads. But it is hard not to see a generational dimension to what has happened since. It is the older generation that is still largely in charge: Egypt's ministers are mostly in their 60s and 70s, as are the leaders of most political groups. And it is the older generation that also largely rubber-stamped a return to pre-2011 policies. January's referendum, which was mainly backed by older voters, was seen as a mandate for the restoration of an authoritarian government.

"It's the generation that supported Hosni Mubarak for 30 years with their silence, and ruined our present. Now they're going to the polling booths to ruin our future," says Ahmad Abd Allah, a prominent activist with 6 April – the youth movement that spearheaded protests in 2011 and is now the subject of a state crackdown.

"We revolted against the silence of our parents and the elder generation," Abd Allah says. "But still that generation is in control and we are the ones who pay the price – even though most of the population is under 30."

Frustrations such as this are not limited to Egypt. Across the Red Sea in Yemen – where nearly 74% are under 30 – youth disenfranchisement also played a large role in the 2011 unrest that led to the removal of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. Three years on, Yemen's continued tension has sectarian, regional and tribal roots. But it also has generational dynamics, with the new president, 68-year-old Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, four times older than the country's median age of 18.5, and the opposition parties governed by the same ageing elites.

In a survey of young political activists by the NGO Safer World, an overwhelming majority of respondents said that – three years after an uprising they helped drive – they still felt sidelined by their leaders from shaping party policy, and from involvement in the country's crucial national dialogue sessions. At a national level, wholesale political change is now impossible because of conditions placed on the post-2011 political transition by other countries in the Gulf. At a party level, leaders avoid internal elections, to stop youth members electing their own representatives.

"I don't think most Yemenis feel that older leaders are in touch with their problems," says Farea al-Muslimi, a 24-year-old Yemeni writer and activist who made international headlines last year when he appeared at a US Senate hearing to denounce American drone strikes. "They don't feel represented or even consulted. Most foreigners who do research in Yemen understand my problems better than Yemeni leaders."

Egyptian youths in Cairo
Egyptian youths in Cairo during the unrest in November 2011. Photograph: Kim Badawi Images/Getty Images Photograph: Kim Badawi Images/Getty Images

One issue that exemplifies the generational gap is that of transitional justice. Younger activists tend to feel that state-led crimes allegedly committed during the country's late-80s civil war should be investigated – not just those in 2011. But the older generation largely disagree, says al-Muslimi. "Why? Because most of these leaders were part of the regime before 1990." Most of their constituents, on the other hand, were not even born.

It is not necessarily a coincidence that these kinds of political tensions are taking place in countries where there is a disproportionately high youth population. Several political scientists have argued that there is a connection between a "youth bulge" – as a high under-30 population is known – and increased unrest. According to a 2007 report by demography-focussed thinktank Population Action, 80% of civil conflicts between 1970 and the end of the millennium took place in nations where at least 60% of the population had not reached 30. As youth populations rise, the argument goes, job prospects, resources and the opportunity for social mobility fall. This can lead to social discontent, and then to unrest. In turn, this gives governments the excuse to implement a campaign of oppression – and the cycle continues.

"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," Richard Cinciotta, a former consultant for the US's national intelligence council, once summarised.

German demographer Gunnar Heinsohn took the theory of the youth bulge to its most extreme. According to Heinsohn, there are very causal links between a youth population that is exploding in metaphorical terms, and one that is literally doing so. "In such 'youth bulge' countries, young men tend to eliminate each other or get killed in aggressive wars until a balance is reached between their ambitions and the number of acceptable positions available in their society," writes Heinsohn, the head of the Raphael Lemkin centre for genocide prevention, housed at Auschwitz. Heinsohn cites Algeria and Lebanon, where civil wars killed hundreds of thousands in the 80s and 90s until, he says, fertility rates in both countries fell drastically. "The warring stopped," Heinsohn argues, "because no more warriors were being born."

But Heinsohn is sniffed at by some contemporaries, who are wary of drawing too strong a connection between the youth bulge and instances of unrest – particularly very violent ones. "He has some very strong claims about the more or less mechanistic relationship between large youth bulges and violence, claiming that large youth bulges, unless there are some very important mitigating factors, will lead to conflict," says Henrik Urdal, editor of the Journal for Peace Research, and author of bulge-related reports for the UN and the World Bank. "But the reality is that most countries in sub-saharan Africa have very significant youth populations, and yet political violence on that scale is still very rare."

Urdal finds that the likelihood of youth-driven conflict can be tempered by the existence of a good education system, and is also dependent on the kind of authoritarian regime a bulging youth finds itself up against. There is evidence of a link between a young population and a heightening of political tensions, he says, "but we're talking about an increase in the risk of low-intensity conflicts [that generate] between 25 and 1,000 battle deaths".

Nor does youth-led political tension always lead to an us-v-them attitude to older generations, Urdal says. "What I argue is that generational consciousness isn't necessarily something that needs to be present in order to facilitate collective action. There doesn't have to be a generational feeling of young against the old."

In Nigeria, for example, where nearly 71% are under 30, demographics have not led to a collective youth consciousness or widespread concern about the lack of youth involvement in politics, argues Dabesaki Mac-Ikemenjima, a Nigerian researcher who studies youth aspirations in Africa. Religion and ethnicity play a much stronger role in Nigerian tensions.

Protester in Cairo
Young protesters shout slogans against the new government in November 2013. Photograph: Mahmoud Khaled/Rex Features Photograph: Mahmoud Khaled/Rex Features

"In Nigeria, it's not so much about generational disagreement or conflict," says Mac-Ikemenjima. "You have a minute group of people who are concerned about whether there is enough space for young people in the political arena." And those younger politicians who do enter the political arena often do so for personal reasons, he adds, rather than to advance their generation's cause. "It's about one person occupying political space for their own advancement."

Recent protest movements in South America – where under-30s typically form just over half of the population – also underline how, where there is unrest, a youth bulge is not always its primary driver. Here, popular narratives argue that it is an aspiring middle-class, rather than a disenfranchised, impoverished youth, that was the main cause of huge recent demonstrations.

"If you look at Brazil, at the million and a half people who took to the streets last June, that was middle-class, not impoverished, citizens," says Chris Garman, an analyst who studies the region for the Eurasia Group, a political consultancy. "If you look at the people who took to the streets two years ago in Argentina, they were middle class. You see that in Colombia as well – middle-class protests that shut down Bogota. What are they unhappy about? Education, transport – those are the issues driving the protests there. That's different to the protests we've seen in the Middle Eastern countries, where you've had economic dislocation for a prolonged period of time, and a lack of economic alternatives for disaffected youth."

Garman sees the South American protests as "a symptom of success" – of professionals wanting more out of an already democratic system, rather than alienated youth seeking the end of an autocratic one. This argument founders slightly given that it was twentysomething student leaders such as Camila Vallejo and Giorgio Jackson who led protests in Chile, and who have at times portrayed their struggle as a generational one. "For people who are now in their 60s and 70s, the transition from dictatorship to democracy was a huge achievement in itself," Jackson, 27, told the BBC recently. "They're happy with that. But our generation wants to push the limits and take things further forward. We don't feel comfortable with the status quo."

Camila Vallejo in Chile
Chilean student leader Camila Vallejo during a protest in Santiago, Chile in April 2012. Photograph: Marcelo Hernandez/dpa/Corbis Photograph: Marcelo Hernandez/dpa/Corbis

But it is significant that Jackson frames his fight as one that seeks to improve Chile's democracy, rather than to topple it. He and Vallejo took up their seats in Chile's congress this month after being elected last November – supporting the argument that protesters there often want to refine their democracy from within, not start from scratch. "Our story is about being born in the last years of the Pinochet dictatorship," Jackson adds. "We were raised in democracy, and that immediately changes your expectations about what democracy is."

Chile is an example of a country that has experienced youth-driven protests despite housing only an average-sized (47%) population of the under-30s. The reverse is also true: historically, several nations have managed to increase stability and prosperity despite a youth bulge. Or, as some have argued, because of it.

In the countries of eastern Asia, income per head tripled between 1965 and 1990 largely because of a bulging youth demographic – a welcome phenomenon known by demographers as a "demographic dividend". Young professionals in countries such as Korea and Japan outnumbered their parents and children, allowing them to spend less on their dependents, and save more – while still splashing out on themselves. But there is a proviso: the region's youth bulge came hand-in-hand with high-quality education that prepared a generation for the marketplace – as well as shrewd economic policies that widened that marketplace in the first place.

"Of course, in order to get here," summarises Banu Bhaweja in the Financial Times, "the governments need to invest in healthcare, especially for children, primary and tertiary education, vocational training and, most of all, engage in policy that creates the incentives for higher investments to productively absorb the country's labour." In places such as Egypt and Yemen, that isn't immediately likely.

Still, Ahmad Abd Allah, the Egyptian activist, can dream. "Some day, we're going to be the winners," he says, the night before his group's leaders claimed they had been tortured while in jail for organising a protest. "We are a young nation, and we are the future."

But for the present, young Egyptians' involvement in the formal political process remains largely nominal: a roundtable with the president here, a token appointment there. As in many countries, they would rather a real partnership: youth involvement as an integral part of national reform, not just as a box-ticking exercise. "The youth is also part of the process of a much greater social transformation that involves the rest of society," says Vallejo. She is talking about Chile. But it could be the mantra for a bulging youth – in Egypt, or anywhere.


Patrick Kingsley

The GuardianTramp

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