Overpopulation and Chaos: Youth Bulges and Failing States

Published on February 17th, 2014

When demographers refer to a “youth bulge” they are not referring to the recent epidemic of obesity among American youngsters. Rather, they are describing a phenomenon that characterizes societies with explosive population growth – an excessively high proportion of the population that is young.

Specifically, the youth bulge refers to a disproportionately high percentage of a country’s population between the ages of 15 and 24. Usually, this also is associated with a greater percentage of the population under 14.

In demographically mature Europe, the median age is 41 years. Half the population is older than the median age and half is younger. In contrast to Europe, the median age of fast-growing countries stuck in stage two of the demographic transition (when the death rate has fallen thanks to a better diet, vaccines and antibiotics, but the birth rate remains high) can be 20 or less.

Graph comparing Nigerian and French Populations
Youth bulge: Note the vastly different age pyramids between rapidly growing Nigeria and nearly stable France.

In Western Africa’s Niger, for example, the median age is 15. Its population is projected to nearly quadruple from 17 million in 2013 to 66 million by 2050. Without substantial international assistance, or striking it rich through the unlikely discovery of massive quantities of some “black gold” like crude oil – it is highly doubtful whether a population of 66 million could even be supported ecologically or economically by Niger, 80 percent of which is covered by the Sahara Desert.

Katherine Carter of the Fund for Peace writes that in countries with a youth bulge, social unrest, extremism and conflict often begin “when a young labor force finds itself unemployed, restless, poverty stricken, and uneducated.” Of the 67 nations currently experiencing youth bulges, 60 (or 90 percent) are also undergoing civil strife and/or conflict.

The Failed State Index (FSI) is a listing of those countries most vulnerable to strife and disintegration. Updated annually by the Fund for Peace, the FSI is a composite of 12 social, economic and political indicators.

Photo from Egyptian Revolution
Egypt’s youth bulge has contributed to the civil strife that has torn the country apart since 2011. It is ranked 34th (out of 178) in the 2013 FSI.

Since the Cold War ended, many nations have fallen victim to horrific internal conflict – civil wars or revolutions – resulting in massive violence, human suffering and displacement, humanitarian emergencies and refugee crises.

Though the specifics vary from case to case, in all instances, these conflicts are the outcome of festering social, economic and political pressures that weak state institutions could no longer manage or contain. In many instances, these institutions were insufficiently professional, legitimate or representative.

Of the lowest-ranked (least stable) 20 countries on the FSI, only two – Haiti and Pakistan – have a median age greater than 20 years old. And even Haiti and Pakistan are grossly overpopulated and destined to become even more so.

This chaos and its tragic consequences were foretold back in the 1970s by National Security Study Memorandum (NSSM) 200, commissioned by President Richard Nixon, and adopted by President Gerald Ford.

NSSM 200 found that:

Adverse socio-economic conditions generated by rapid population growth in less developed countries may contribute to…chronic and growing under employment and unemployment…food riots, separatist movements, communal massacres, revolutionary actions and counter-revolutionary coups.

NSSM 200 concluded that: “In a broader sense, there is a major risk of severe damage to world economic, political, and ecological systems and, as these systems begin to fail, to our humanitarian values.”

Unfortunately, NSSM 200’s findings were ignored, even by Nixon himself. And in recent decades, U.S. support for international family planning has become a political football between Democrats and Republicans, the latter increasingly dominated by short-sighted, anti-choice ideologues.

Writing in Foreign Policy, Malcolm Potts and Martha Campbell of the University of California at Berkeley make the claim that “ignoring family planning overseas was the worst foreign-policy mistake of the century.”

They’re right. And not just because human suffering and tragedy on a massive scale could have been – and still could be – prevented. But also because of the blowback that, sooner or later, will strike our homeland.

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