Friday, March 28

Care about the young folks

The current issue of Foreign Policy magazine has an interesting piece (sadly subscription only) by demographer Richard Cincotta on the relationship between youth bulges and democracy. Essentially, countries with "chronically young" populations have a much tougher time building and sustaining democracies. Of countries where young adults constitute roughly half the population, only 10 percent are "free" (according to Freedom House's ratings). But 90 percent of countries where young adults make up less than 28 percent of the population are free.
The reason a country’s age structure influences its political regime lies in the details of the demographic transition—the shift from large to small families that, after a lag of about two decades, turns societies with a “youth bulge” into more mature ones. When larger-than-average proportions of adolescents move into their working years, wages typically slump and unemployment swells, giving rise to conditions that make it easier for political groups to mobilize and recruit disillusioned and disaffected young males. As one might expect, and as numerous studies have shown, populations with excessive numbers of young people invite a higher risk of political violence and civil strife than others. Assuming Thomas Hobbes was correct when he described how citizens are willing to relinquish liberties when faced with threats to their security and property, it’s not surprising that support for authoritarians should rise when a large chunk of society is young and jobless.
So the next place where freedom has a good chance of taking root, Cincotta tells us, is North Africa, followed by the Latin American trio of Venezuela, Colombia, and Ecuador. Somewhere like Kenya - where young adults are about 40 percent of the population and plenty of youngsters are set to enter the cohort - would be expected to face stiff challenges in consolidating democracy, as was demonstrated by the central role of young men - often jobless - in the recent post-election violence.

Cincotta acknowledges plenty of big exceptions, notably China, Russia, and Cuba, offering the somewhat-satisfying suggestion that strongly institutionalized one-party systems and strongly charismatic dictators can resist this demographic pressure. He also points to southern Africa, where AIDS hasn't fostered the political instability that would be expected.

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