Promising or Precarious? Youth Demographics and Democratization in Africa


The relationship between demographic development and democracy is perhaps nowhere more important than in Africa. The continent currently has more people under age 20 than any other, with the overall population expected to double to two billion by 2050. Scholars and policy makers remain divided over the implications of both the “young majority” and Africa’s population boom for democratic and economic development across the region.

The first camp adopts a Malthusian-inspired prediction, citing that population growth, especially the growth of those 30 and under, far outstrips growth of economic and employment opportunities. The result is a “ticking time bomb,” with 10 to 12 million young people joining the labor force each year, many of them unable to find gainful employment. That “bomb” seems to have already gone off in many African countries. In South Africa, more than 50% of youth aged 15-24, or 73 million people, are unemployed, the third highest in the world behind Greece and Spain. Across the African continent, youth account for more than 60% of all unemployed. And in many countries, young people are either underemployed or employed informally. In the DRC, Republic of the Congo (Brazzaville), Ethiopia, Ghana, Malawi, Mali, Rwanda, Senegal and Uganda, more than 70% of youth are either self-employed or work only for their family.

The first camp contends that these demographic realities will result is increasing economic instability and civil unrest that could lead to democratic breakdowns, both in fragile and consolidated democracies alike. Indeed, young populations have been known to drive election-related violence and, in some cases, broad civil conflict. West Africa’s civil wars of the 1990’s and early 2000’s were significantly propelled by disaffected youth. Furthermore, the World Bank estimates that 40% of those who join rebel movements do so because of a lack of jobs, many of them belonging to the youth demographic. As Andrews Atta-Asamoah writes from South Africa, “It is increasingly becoming clear across Africa that unless political leadership offers young people something to live for, social stresses such as unemployment can make them easy prey to those who offer them something to die for.” The Arab Spring showed us that growing unrest among a large, unemployed, and youthful population can result in a relatively well met demand for democratic reform (Tunisia), or a very poorly met one (Egypt). Democratic outcomes  in an increasingly young Africa might well be equally as varied.

The second camp, arguably the less popular of the two,  argues that the abundance of young people predicts a bright future for Africa. Scholars in this school of thought argue that, although Africa’s overall population will continue to grow rapidly for the next several decades, the fertility rate will slowly decline. As the current youth “bulge” grows older, it is expected to produce fewer children than previous generations. Thus, by 2030, many African countries will have more working-age adults relative to children and elderly individuals. Economists and demographers call this phenomenon the demographic dividend: “A large workforce with fewer children to support creates a window of opportunity to save money on health care and other social services; improve the quality of education; increase economic output because of more people working; invest more in technology and skills to strengthen the economy; and create the wealth needed to cope with the future aging of the population.”

Despite their optimism, those who argue for the demographic dividend concede that only some African countries may have the economic potential to take advantage of the future abundance in adult workers. Economies that continue to stagnate may simply witness a transformation from “too many unemployed youth” to  “too many unemployed adults.” But those countries with more promising economies may find that the demographic dividend has positive consequences for democracy. If African governments hope to capture the full benefit of a growing adult workforce, they will have to ensure “institutional quality… strong rule of law, efficient bureaucracies, government stability, lack of corruption, and a stable business environment that encourages domestic and foreign investors.”

Which path(s) will Africa take?  In some countries, will growing unrest among youth threaten democracy before the “demographic dividend” can be realized? And in others, will the young majority effectively demand growth in democratic institutions alongside its own growth?

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One Response to Promising or Precarious? Youth Demographics and Democratization in Africa

  1. agebremedhin says:

    Interesting look at a significant issue the continent must soon address. I consider myself within the second field of those more optimistic of the abilities of youth to push Africa forward. In particular, perhaps the fact that the majority of young people out of school are self-employed can be harnessed into a growth in the entrepreneuring, private sector. This possible type of organic growth in Africa should be enhanced, organized and supported, as it could create a generation of socially integrated, economically productive citizens and potentially, a middle class of entrepreneurs.

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