post-gazette | While countries across Europe and East Asia grapple with declining birthrates and aging populations, societies across the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia face youth booms of staggering proportions: More than half of Egypt’s labor force is younger than age 30. Half of Nigeria’s population of 167 million is between the ages of 15 and 34. In Afghanistan, Angola, Chad, East Timor, Niger, Somalia and Uganda, more than two-thirds of the population is under the age of 25.
How well these young people transition to adulthood — and how well their governments integrate them economically, politically and socially — will influence whether their countries thrive or implode. Surging populations of young people will drive political and social norms, influence modes of governance and the role of women in society, and embrace or discredit extremist ideologies. They are the fulcrum on which the future rests.
These young people could transform entire regions, making them more prosperous, more just and more secure. Or they could unleash a flood of instability and violence. Or both. And if their countries are unable to accommodate their needs and aspirations, they could generate waves of migration for decades.
In the face of this deluge of young people, world leaders should be steering us all toward the former and away from the latter. But as serial acts of global terrorism, large-scale humanitarian disasters, perplexing political trends in Europe such as Brexit and persistent economic fragility demand urgent attention, the question emerges:
Is anyone even paying attention?
Consider India. More than 300 million Indians are under the age of 15, making India home to more children than any country, at any time, in all of human history. If these children formed a country, it would be the fourth-largest in the world.
Every month until 2030, one million Indians will turn 18 years old, observes Somini Sengupta, the author of a compelling new book, “The End of Karma: Hope and Fury Among India’s Young.” These young people will need education and jobs in a global economy that will feature more automation and fewer of the semi-skilled manufacturing jobs that absorbed earlier youth surges in Asia. India’s demographic bonanza nevertheless holds the potential to create unprecedented economic growth — or it could rock the world’s largest democracy and second-largest population with sustained instability.
Africa’s population of 200 million young people is set to double by 2045. In the Middle East, a region of some 400 million people, nearly 65 percent of the population is younger than 30 — the highest proportion of youth to adults in the region’s history.
In Pakistan, two-thirds of the population is under 30. Many of these young people will grow up in a Pakistan that appears to be growing more democratic but that also is rife with corruption, extremist violence and dire shortages of energy and water.
In Iran, two-thirds of the population is under 35. These young people are educated, tech savvy and full of potential. Whereas the Islamic revolution will be something they learned about in school, many will remember Iranians pouring into the streets during the Green Movement or to celebrate the nuclear deal with the United States. And they will watch to see whether engagement with the West benefits them or not.
Will young Iranians and Pakistanis uplift or splinter the politics, economies, cultures and security of their countries? Will they engage the world productively and peacefully, turn inward or pick fights with neighbors? Given the size, strategic position and military capabilities of these two geopolitical heavweights, the answers will determine whether they export vitality or violence.
Unfortunately, the countries with most of the world’s young people are the ones most ill-equipped to grapple with their needs, ambitions, expectations and inevitable frustrations — let alone capitalize on their potential. Developing countries are home to 89 percent of the world’s 10- to 24-year-olds; by 2020, they will be home to nine out of every 10 people globally.
Given these conditions, it is easy to conjure a dystopic future, a Hollywood caricature of lawless developing countries dominated by gangs of young men brandishing firearms.
But what if the world invests in these young people? These countries are capable of pulling themselves out of poverty and instability within a generation — the way China did, the way India might. But if the international community fails to act now, we will all suffer the consequences.