South Asia’s Youth Demographics

Part two of a series on youth demographics in South Asia.

In my last post, I examined how a swell in South Asia’s youth population could result in economic growth and productivity, or civil unrest and possible security threats.

Threats to Civil Order

This latter option dates back to the seminal Social Contract Theory of Thomas Hobbes, who from the 17th century posited that a society would not uphold rule of law when the state does not provide political and economic privileges. A young society starved of economic opportunity and, worse still, civil liberties that empower it to bring about change, will inevitably bubble over and threaten social order. Research from the Woodrow Wilson Center regarding the transition to and stability of liberal democratic societies states:

“[I]t is not surprising that support for authoritarian regimes should rise – especially among the commercial elite – during a large youth bulge, when much of the population is young and jobless. Youth bulges tend to give rise to youth cultures that coalesce around distinctive identities and untempered ideologies, and find expression through experimentation and risk-taking.”

This excerpt describes a trend toward extremism and a heavy reliance on ideology to mobilize populist action. A demographic shift paired with discontent can breed terrorist activity as well as other forms of violence. Research out of Davidson College provides updated insight on the populist impacts of a youth bulge: “Youth disproportionally participate in extreme behavior because of a lack of developmental maturity; therefore, a population with more youth is inherently more volatile.” The literature builds on the idea that the youth bulge is not simply about a segment of the population with economic and political needs, but rather it is the condition of youth itself, and the corresponding developmental status, that makes youth more prone to action of some kind.

These theoretical projections have real implications for the nations of South Asia. “India is experiencing a surge in reported sexual violence, which some believe may be attributed to the surfeit of young, low-income men who lack a formal and productive role within society.” Similarly, many prime recruits to terrorist organizations – in the various shapes and forms they take – are young, frustrated men. Rabbi Royan, Pakistan’s country representative for United Nations Population Fund, commented in 2011 that where appropriate planning is lacking, such population dynamics backed by poverty and inequality will have severe repercussions. Furthermore, a study conducted using United Nations data projects that the period of Pakistan’s potential demographic dividend endures from 1990 to 2045, meaning that the nation has already failed to capitalize on 23 years of human capital wealth. Immediate failure to respond with the appropriate policy measures will be met with continued civil unrest and instability.

Reform Needed

The news is not all bad; Pakistan has experienced three decades of real GNP growth averaging six percent. This kind of growth signals immense potential if the state can respond accordingly.

Royan warned, however, that education and employment would be the “foremost challenge[s] faced by Pakistan,” and that a discontented youth’s “energies may be directed towards undesirable activities, like radicalization.” Another population specialist, Zeba Sathar of the Population Council, advocates for population control mechanisms to reduce the fertility rate.

2.7 million pregnancies in Pakistan each year are unintended and bestowed in many cases to women who lack education and economic prospects of their own, but may feel social pressures to reproduce. If enforced, however, population control policies in Pakistan should be implemented in concert with strong economic policy and improvements to public and vocational education.

Overall, the literacy rates in South Asia are unimpressive: 62% of young women are literate, compared with 77% of men. In environments where traditional systems of education do not meet the needs of developing populations, alternative methods of education are necessary. Whether because quality of schooling fails to substantively prepare graduates, or because the opportunity cost of attending school is simply too high for men and women, education in South Asia must adapt itself to the youth bulge.

A journal article from the IMF’s Finance & Development publication indicates that “skill shortages, a feature of all developing countries, tend to be smaller where enrollments in post-education are high,” an effort which merits greater focus for South Asian nations going forward. In addition, the Future Challenges blog details the prospect of literacy programs for adults in South Asia as well as education reform to promote the development of creativity and entrepreneurship in students. This undertaking would help ensure that graduates are savvy enough to create new jobs rather than just fill existing jobs in the economy.

Successful optimization of South Asia’s demographic dividend will involve a package of policy reforms. Interventions to improve education should not occur independently of population control measures or labor regulation. Similarly, proper governance and public administration will be vital. For example, in a country where the share of the older dependent population is shrinking, not only can an economy grow, but state capacity can also grow. Tax revenue can grow due to an expanded labor force, and with it, public expenditure per citizen can grow. Such a population structure can enhance public sector spending on human capital development for generations to come, and allow growth to continue and compound over time. Once a nation finds a rhythm for this, the opportunities for growth are significant and stable.

In my next post, I’ll delve deeper into specific policies and interventions that could help mitigate threats to civil order, converting the youth swell from economic and political burden to prowess.


Image Credit: Rama via Wikimedia Commons


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