Peak youth - seizing the moment

We have accepted the concept “peak oil” - the point where oil production goes into an irreversible decline. Now we are being asked to contemplate that we are also rapidly approaching “peak youth”, when there will be more young people than ever before in the history of the planet, and when young people as a proportion of the population will reach a maximum, before starting to drop.

The UN Population Fund (UNFPA) reckons there are already 1.8 billion people aged 10-24 in the world. In its annual report it presents them as a great force for accelerated development and a better quality of life, but only if the demographic changes going on can be harnessed for good.

The pattern followed by populations over the past century or more is now well understood. First, medical advances improve child survival; the numbers of children and young people rise, and working adults struggle to raise an increased number of dependents. Then people start having fewer children. Meanwhile, the first generation of the baby bulge reaches adulthood and joins the workforce, and suddenly there are more adults to support fewer dependants; families have the chance to get richer, and so does the whole society.

Europe made this transition long ago. South East Asia followed, and more recently China. All saw a dramatic increase in prosperity, the so-called “demographic dividend”. Now Africa is going through the same transition. The UNFPA report says that only six countries remain where the population is still “youthening” rather than ageing, and five out of those six are in sub-Saharan Africa. Even there the trend is expected to reverse after 2020. (Israel, a special case, is the sixth one).

“The demographic dividend is not a given; you have to seize it”

UNFPA's Director Babatunde Osotimehin is upbeat. “Never before,” he says, have there been so many young people. Never again is there likely to be such potential for economic and social change.” But he adds a warning. He told IRIN: “Demographic transition will happen, but the dividend is not a given. You need to seize it, and you need to understand that this is the time to seize it.”

To make the most of this potential workforce, you need your young people to be healthy, well educated and gainfully employed. The first response of governments facing the demographic shift tends to focus on job creation. But the report's editor, Richard Kollodge, would like to see a shift of emphasis from worrying about unemployment, to enabling young people to find their own ways to contribute. “We've got to get people thinking in those terms,” he told IRIN. “We've got this big youth population, and are we doing the right things to allow them to fulfil their potential? Instead of seeing them as a liability, we have to see them as an asset; instead of seeing problems, we have to see possibilities. But none of this will happen automatically.”

For UNFPA, with its main work in the field of sexual and reproductive health, this means putting more effort into helping girls and young women, in particular, to fulfil their potential, freeing them from the health problems brought by FGM and too-early childbearing, and giving them the power of choice, about education and work, about when and who to marry, and about when and how often to bear children. Its vision is of a healthy, well educated and self-confident workforce, where young women as well as young men will be able to create their own employment and produce economic value, even where formal sector jobs are not available.

At the Institute of Development Studies near Brighton in the UK, Pauline Oosterhoff is concerned that making young women economically productive is going to be a much wider project, with investments needed in infrastructure like water supply and more social support; dependency ratios are not just about GDP, they are about child care and elder care, and like other domestic chores, the burden is borne by women and girls. “A young woman is not going to be able to work for profit if she is doing a lot of unpaid work,” she says. “If you see what a day looks like now for a girl in developing countries, you will see that achieving an economic dividend is going to take a lot of investment.”

“And let's not forget,” adds her colleague Deeta Chopra, “that the trend will eventually be reversed when this working age population gets old, and then again there will be more dependency. I'm surprised that in policies to empower women and girls, care-giving doesn't figure. There's no discussion of child care, no discussion of elder care, so the demographic dividend risks being defeated by the invisibility of the care economy.”

“Trade liberalization has completely changed the playing field”

Other demographers doubt whether it can ever be possible for the youth bulge in Africa to produce the kind of growth spurt seen in countries like South Korea and Thailand. Deborah Potts of Kings College London is one of them. “The significant factor in almost every case was state intervention,” she told IRIN, “but in a globalized world, with major constraints on what kind of development path you can go down, it is actually impossible for African countries to follow the path that South Korea did.

“South Korea basically poured money into heavy industries like shipbuilding, undercutting its rivals in a way that would not be allowed today. Under World Trade Organization rules it would be completely illegal. Trade liberalization has completely changed the playing field. Nigeria, for instance, has lost hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs to Chinese competition, and there is no suggestion that these jobs are coming back. All these young people in Nigeria have to be doing something more productive than they are doing now in order to produce a demographic dividend. It's not informal sector jobs which kicked off the economies or Thailand, Vietnam or China.”

The dilemma for policymakers in Africa is that the population shift is happening right now, and even the optimists say the need to make decisions is urgent. Kollodge says: “It's during the lag between falling mortality and falling fertility that you have to start making the investment if you are going to see the benefit. Eventually a very young population will become a very old population, and you have to plan for that too. Unless steps are taken right now, then the opportunity for a demographic dividend will be squandered. The window of opportunity won't remain open for very long.”