The Demographic Divide: Are Youth the Angels or the Demons of the New Millenium

The Globe and Mail (Canada) ran a special edition on Africa which touched on the issues and importance of youth, but they missed the opportunity to put the issues into global context and look at next steps. The following is a more in-depth analysis.

Cross Posted from the Practical Radical Blog

In the 20th century it took decades for the international community to realize the value of women to the community. We are in danger of this same thing happening with youth in the 21st century. Are youth angels, our hope for a new world, or are they demons who will rise up and bring our world crashing down?

Throughout history youth have been the leaders of revolutions and the fodder for generals. They are the victims of poverty and the engines of economy.

Africa is the youngest continent demographically. 70-80% of most African countries are under the age of 30. In developing regions as a whole, least developed countries are younger that the rest of the world and in 2005, the global median age was 28 years. In the 10 least-developed African countries it was 16 or younger.

Yet we need to look at the issues of Africa within the context of the larger demographic divide which exists globally.

In the North or developed world we have what can be characterized as the old geezers. The developed world population is rapidly aging, their productive (and reproductive!) capacity is slowing down, their needs are increasing. No longer can they depend on the entrepreneurialism of the boomer generations and its drive to conquer all, damn the consequences.

The South or developing world is youthful and in economic terms, in the prime of its life. Yet, they are living under deplorable, inhumane conditions and find the deck stacked against them, unable to fight their way out and up.

In the map below we can graphically see how the developing world, especially the African continent, is youthful. If we look behind the numbers we can also see an increasingly urban world, where it has been estimated that half of the world’s population will live in cities by 2030, with almost all of this growth occurring in developing world cities and slums, and over 60% of those being under the age of 18.

So what does this all mean for the developed and developing world?

On the positive side, for much of the developing world this “youth bulge” could bring about, with the appropriate investment in education and training, an economic boom. According to the recent World Development Report 2007 the time has never been better to invest in young people living in developing countries … rich and poor countries alike need to seize this opportunity before the aging of societies closes it. Doing so will enable them to grow faster and reduce poverty even further. Education and training has been found to be the key determinant in youth having an equal opportunity to succeed (State of the Urban Youth Report). Clearly, many people believe, both in the ivory towers of international agencies and on the ground in developing countries, that there is hope.

Yet, there is clearly a darkside to this youthful demographic, stemming from the aforementioned inhuman conditions youth live within, and their inability to attain a proper livelihood. According to the ILO, of the 1.1 billion young people aged 15 to 24 worldwide, one out of three is either seeking but unable to find work, and has given up the job search entirely or is working but living on less than US$2 a day. Youth as well face a scourge of other issues: violence at a higher rate than the rest of the community, youth being both the victims and the perpetrators; HIV AIDs rates higher than the regular population; etc. Youth are more often perceived as a threat than anything positive. Think tanks such as the Brookings Institute are not welcoming the “youth bulge” as the chance for a new generation to advance their countries out of poverty and destitution, but are more worried about this as bringing about the growth of terrorism. I have written about this challenge and possible solutions in papers I have delivered recently in the Middle East.

In regards to the developed world there is as well good and bad.

We can see the negative effects of an aging society with schools closing because of the lack of children and a growing drain on our social services because of an aging and needy population. Economically it is projected that due to our aging and unproductive society, by 2050 two-thirds of the world’s capital will be in the developing world, compared to just 7.7 percent today. Though it is well understood that we need to keep young people coming in to maintain a youthful and productive society, both policy nor society in general seems to understand this. Society’s response seems to be represented by either the growth of militia groups and new anti-immigrant laws in the Southern US, or the continuing riots in the suburbs of Paris and other major European cities.

On the positive side there is a greater recognition of the dividend that diversity brings both socially and economically. There has been some excellent work done on this both by researchers and journalists.

In the end we need to look at solutions that recognize youth as assets to their community. Many international agencies are recognizing the benefit of engaging youth as leaders of today, not only tomorrow. The recently published World Urban Forum Youth Dialogue Series is a good place to start, but there are many more. If you know of any please post them in the comment section and I will put them up in a future blog.

World Urban Forum Youth Dialogue Series publications

1. Youth Led Development in Sustainable Cities – From Idea, to Policy to Practice
2. The Place Of Children – Poverty + Promise
3. Youth In Urban Development – Bringing Ideas into Action
4. One Stop Youth Resource Centres – Local Governments Response to Improving Youth Livelihood
5. Space for Change

About practicalradical

I am practical by nature, radical by design. I believe in patterns not lines; paradox not certainty; and the chaotic not the orderly.
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