This book chapter from the Brookings Institution Press reports study findings suggesting that demographic ‘youth bulges’ may provide both a motive and an opportunity for political violence. These bulges increase the risk of internal armed conflict, terrorism, and rioting, but the conditions under which they are most volatile seem to differ. Bulges appear to particularly increase the risk of terrorism and riots under conditions of educational and economic stress, but to provide greater opportunities for armed conflict in autocracies and greater motives in democracies.
Recently, youth bulges have become a popular explanation for instability in the Arab world and for international terrorist network recruitment. While the literature focuses on spontaneous and low intensity unrest, historically youth bulges, in conjunction with rapid urbanisation, have been an important contributor to political violence, especially in contexts of unemployment and poverty.
- Large youth cohorts reduce recruitment costs for rebel organisations through an abundant supply of labour. This is particularly the case when the benefits from joining are greater than alternative income-earning opportunities.
- If young people have limited opportunities beyond unemployment and poverty, they are more likely to join a rebellion as frustrations mount. Socio-economic problems provide fertile ground for terrorist recruitment.
- Prevailing unemployment among highly educated youth populations can cause frustration and grievances. High unemployment among educated youth is one of the most destabilising and violent socio-political phenomena in any regime.
The existence of youth bulges significantly increases the risk of conflict. However, there has been no thorough review of government programmes aimed at mitigating the security risk posed by youth bulges. More research is therefore required on youth bulges, political violence and remedial policies, particularly in regards to urban settings. The following policy implications should be considered:
- Declining fertility means that the importance of youth bulges will fade in the next decade. When the relative numbers of dependents decrease, savings and opportunity will increase. Thus rebel labour will become more expensive as greater employment prospects are recognised.
- Caution should be taken in the Middle East, Africa and parts of Asia, where state will continue to experience a high youth ratio. Youth bulges pose a challenge to many Muslim governments, particularly regarding the increase in well educated young men with a lack of opportunity.
- The provision of employment and education opportunities for youth during times of economic decline needs to be a key focus. The employment situation of educated youth should be monitored as the security risk increases.
- Emigration can work as a safety valve in countries with large youth cohorts. If migration opportunities are limited and domestic initiatives are not in place, then the increased pressure from youth bulges will bring a higher risk of political violence.
See also author’s presentation on this subject.