Youth. Antisocial, mobile-tapping, Lady Gagaobsessed layabouts who get off the couch only to riot. What's to like? Rather a lot. In the Middle East and North Africa, youths played a major role in bringing down some long-standing dictatorships. And that may be only the start. A burgeoning young population might help speed global economic growth and be a sign of positive developments in the quality of life worldwide.
Around the world, countries are in various stages of progress through what economists call the demographic transition. That's the move from high rates of fertility and mortality women having lots of children, many of whom die young to low birthrates and longer life expectancies. The rich countries of Europe and North America, along with Japan, are all the way through this transition, with many of them seeing shrinking populations as a result. Africa is still in the middle of the change; Latin America and Asia are further ahead.
In all regions of the world, mortality rates have fallen before fertility rates have. To put it crudely, fewer people die before fewer people are born. That's why we've seen such dramatic global population growth over the past 50 years, from 3 billion to nearly 7 billion. At the start of the demographic transition, women still have lots of children, but many more of those children survive into adulthood and old age. Only after a while do birthrates decline. And between those two moments not only do populations increase, but the average age of people also drops. You get a youth bulge.
Take the developing countries of the Middle East and North Africa as an example. In 1960, on average, women in the region gave birth seven times, and about one-quarter of children died before their fifth birthday. By 1980 child mortality had almost halved, but fertility rates remained stubbornly high. Child mortality dropped further by 2000, and at last fertility began to follow dropping to three births per woman. Meanwhile, the proportion of working-age people increased from about half in 1980 to nearly two-thirds today.
Traditionally economists and political scientists viewed a youth bulge as a problem. As part of a rising number of mouths to feed and hands to employ, an army of youths would put pressure on wages and food supplies, potentially dragging developing-world societies further into poverty. And youths could all too quickly become a literal army provoking unrest and civil war. But in many countries, recent evidence tells a different story.
Work by David Bloom at Harvard and other economists suggests that the youth bulge can speed economic development. When a greater percentage of the total population is of working age, then, other things being equal, you would expect income per person to be higher. As women cease spending their most productive years having babies, they can enter the workforce. That's good. It is working-age people (not children or retirees) who save the most, creating more funds for investment and growth. Bloom and his colleagues suggest that as much as a third of East Asia's "miracle" growth rates over the past few decades might be attributed to the youth bulge.
But there's nothing inevitable about a youth bulge producing a growth dividend. Benefits have to be earned. Without the right policies spurring education and job opportunities, they won't materialize. The Middle East got education right: college and university enrollment in Egypt has doubled since 1990, for example, and Cairo University alone has about 200,000 students. But a sclerotic private sector and hidebound institutions have failed to create sufficient jobs for graduates. Unemployment among 15-to-24-year-olds in the Middle East and North Africa is above 25%. And despite the fact that in many countries in the region there are more young women than young men in college, few women are active in the workforce, especially after marriage.
In the Middle East, then, young people had nowhere to go but the street. Luckily, once there, they confounded skeptics by favoring ringtones over riots. Young, educated and tech-savvy, they helped foment peaceful revolutions. Think of Tahrir Square as Egypt's Woodstock only cleaner and with a purpose.
Political scientist Chris Blattman of Yale suggests that it isn't just in the Middle East that the link between youth and political violence might be weaker than many once thought. Around the world, he notes, "the people who riot or rebel are poor, unemployed young men... The problem is that the people who don't riot are also poor, unemployed young men. Most of the population is poor and unemployed and young. It's not clear that the poorer and less employed are more violent." It is clear, though, that if the youth demonstrations lead to more responsive governments that focus on creating jobs, the region may at last start seeing a demographic dividend.
That's just the start. Behind the youth bulge is more good news. Falling fertility and mortality rates are great outcomes in their own right. They mean that the probability that a woman in the Middle East or North Africa will go through the pain of watching one of her children die before its fifth birthday has fallen from 85% in 1960 to just about 10% today. That's still too high, but no parent could call it anything other than wonderful progress.
Moreover, falling fertility, along with reduced risk from childbirth, means that maternal mortality has dropped worldwide. The number of mothers who died in childbirth fell from 526,000 in 1980 to 343,000 in 2008. Reductions in fertility and child and maternal mortality are all connected to a greater power among the world's women to make decisions about how many children they want and how to raise them. A sign: girls' school-enrollment rates have been climbing rapidly worldwide. Even in parts of the Middle East, they now match or surpass boys' rates of enrollment. Declining birthrates also reflect family-planning programs' rolling out access to modern contraceptive techniques, which have reduced birthrates by as much as 1.5 births per woman.
Falling mortality at a time of rising populations worldwide suggests even more good news: the global breakdown of the so-called Malthusian trap, which predicts that rising population will lead to increased poverty, famine and even war as limited resources are spread among ever more people. Instead, famines have become increasingly rare. Wealth has been spreading so much that global poverty has been more than halved since 1990. And the recent past has seen a considerable downtick in violence: there were 24 wars going on in the world in 1984, but by 2008 that number had dropped to five.
The spread of global democracy, better health, more education, less violence it all adds up to a much better world. And that suggests the biggest new idea of all: it's time to abandon our usual pessimism about the state of the planet and the course of history. We've got many challenges to overcome, but it might be a good idea to adopt a bit of youthful optimism when it comes to confronting them. After all, we appear to be making pretty good progress.
Kenny is a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development and a Schwartz fellow at the New America Foundation. He is the author of Getting Better: Why Global Development Is Succeeding and How We Can Improve the World Even More.