A clash of generations: How high percentages of young people can fuel conflicts | Henrik Urdal

20 Dec 2013

refugees in syria Refugees from Syria's conflict. (Photo: UNHCR)

In a time of unprecedented demographic change — there will be an estimated 9.6 billion people mainly concentrated in cities around the globe by 2050 — population structures play a significant role in the overall peace and stability of a country. My research focuses on the correlation between populations with burgeoning numbers of young people, which social scientists call "youth bulges," instability, and conflicts.

Around the world, 68 countries, including Afghanistan, Iraq, Mali, Nigeria, and Yemen, have demographic pyramids heavily skewed towards younger populations. Many of these countries, where more than 30 percent of the adult population is between the ages of 15 and 24, are currently experiencing violence or social or political unrest.

While youth bulges are not the only cause of violence, when combined with low education, a failing job market unable to employ high numbers of young workers, and an inaccessible political system excluding youth from participation, the risk of conflict increases.

The current conflict in Syria is a case in point. In 2000, Syria had the third-largest youth bulge in the world, as well as one of the lowest rates of secondary education in the Middle East and North Africa. As in many other countries in the region, young Syrians had to wait for long periods to get a job, while youth unemployment rates hovered around 20 to 25 percent, leading to delays in marriage and settling down.

Youth bulges, however, are by no means always a source of violence and upheaval. When combined with jobs and education, they can drive progress and economic development. In East Asia and European countries, such as Ireland, youth bulges have contributed to strengthening the economy. In countries such as Syria, expanding opportunities in education, the job market, and peaceful political participation, would not only transform youth into an economic advantage, but even help reduce conflict.

Talk to us: How can we help young people become sources of peace rather than conflict?

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