The Security Implications of Societies’ Demographic Growing PainsOctober 15, 2008 By Richard Cincotta
In their provocative article in The National Interest entitled “The Battle of the (Youth) Bulge” (subscription required), Neil Howe and Richard Jackson take a critical look at the limits of the “youth bulge hypothesis,” which posits that a large and growing proportion of young adults puts societies at greater risk for political instability and civil conflict. The authors’ bigger target in this article is an assumption they perceive as widespread in the security community: that ongoing decline in youth bulges will necessarily produce what the authors dub a “demographic peace.” Howe and Jackson argue that such an expectation is overblown, and that’s clearly the case: Researchers, including myself, describe the effects of a declining youth bulge in terms of lowered risk of instability or conflict (see articles in ECSP Report 10 and ECSP Report 12). Its effects have never been proven absolute or inalterable.
For me, Howe and Jackson’s strongest points lie in their identification of four complications that can arise at various points during the demographic transition:
- Unsynchronized fertility decline among politically competitive ethnic groups, leading to shifts in ethnic composition;
- Possible instabilities arising from a secondary youth bulge (an echo bulge), created as the previous generation’s bulge passes through its prime childbearing years (see figure);
- Questions about whether fertility can decline “too fast”; and
- The implications of continuous flows of foreign migrants into low-fertility countries—in particular, European countries today.
Some of Howe and Jackson’s other points seem muddled and inconsistent with quantitative studies, however. They cite researchers who argue that the mid-stages of economic development are the most threatening to security, and then link this to the demographic transition by declaring that “economic development…tend[s] to closely track demographic transition in each country.” This is mistaken: An extensive body of research informs demographers that economic development and fertility decline have been only weakly linked, even during the European fertility decline. While in several countries (including Brazil, Mexico, and South Africa) fertility declined abreast of rising per capita income, none of the East Asian “tigers” escaped the World Bank’s low-income country status until fertility dropped to near 3 children per woman, even though this measure had been declining steadily for years.
Nor can Howe and Jackson validate their assertion that having one of the middle structures is riskier than having one of the younger structures. Studies using the Uppsala Conflict Database’s record of minor and major conflicts show that, from 1970-1999, the very youngest countries (median age less than 18) and the middle group (median age 18-25) both experienced elevated risks of the emergence of a civil conflict —and both have large youth bulges. As Leahy and colleagues have shown, the youngest group was at greatest risk.
However, there is a way to salvage Howe and Jackson’s point. When infant mortality declines rapidly in the absence of fertility decline, age structures actually grow younger—in other words, some aspects of development push countries back into the youngest, most vulnerable category. If this is what the authors mean, they could have been clearer.
The authors go on to contend that neo-authoritarian regimes are likely to crop up among late-transition age structures. Here Howe and Jackson cede demography too much power over a state’s destiny. If one considers Deng Xiaoping the architect of China’s neo-authoritarian state, Lee Kwan Yew Singapore’s, Ali Khamenei Iran’s, and Hugo Chávez Venezuela’s, then this thesis has little empirical support. None of these regimes were established during the latter part of the demographic transition. Deng, Lee, and Ali Khamenei actually hastened fertility decline from high levels. I will, however, grant that Deng and Lee grew powerful as their countries’ age structures matured, and as that maturity promoted economic growth and reduced political tensions.
Overall, I’m much more positive than Howe and Jackson. I believe that parts of the world will, indeed, be left more politically stable and more democratic when very young age structures mature. Look at much of East Asia. Few veterans of conflicts in that region would have expected that, in 2008, most of its countries would be listed as vacation spots. I find it hard to believe, as Howe and Jackson do, that the most advanced phases of the demographic transition—a period yet to come—pose the greatest global security threats. Of course, I’m guessing…and so are they.
Richard Cincotta is the consulting demographer for the Long-Range Analysis Unit of the National Intelligence Council.
Figure: Iran’s 2005 youth bulge could give rise to an echo bulge in 2025. Courtesy of Richard Cincotta.
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