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The State Of The World’s Youth Explosion

The emergence of an unprecedented youth population is going to make or break many developing world economies.

While much of the industrialized world is getting older and large numbers of baby boomers are reaching retirement age, the population of the developing world is getting younger. There are 1.8 billion people aged 10 to 24 in the world currently, and nine out of 10 live in less developed countries.

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For nations in Latin America, the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa, youthful demographics are both an opportunity and a source of worry. On the one hand, these countries can emulate the East Asian “miracle” of 1980s and 90s, which had a lot to do with countries reaping a “demographic dividend” in their populations. On the other, they could have a restless and angry group of young people on their hands, and more protests like we saw during the Arab Spring.

A new report from the United Nations Population Fund lays out the challenge:

The emergence of a large youth population of unprecedented size can have a profound effect on any country. Whether that effect is positive or negative depends largely on how well governments respond to young people’s needs and enable them to engage fully and meaningfully in civic and economic affairs.

A “demographic dividend” occurs when countries move from agrarian to industrial economies and fertility and mortality rates fall. Suddenly they have more people of working age (being productive and paying taxes) than “dependents” (both young and old) who rely on state support or who aren’t being productive. This demographic transition offers a window for countries to invest in their economies and social systems and improve living standards and well-being.

Greta Gabaglio via Shutterstock

India has the most 10 to 24 year olds, at 356 million, currently, followed by China with 269 million. Then comes Indonesia (67 million), the U.S. (which is relatively young for a developed nation and has 65 million young people), Pakistan (59 million), Nigeria (57 million), Brazil (51 million) and Bangladesh (48 million).

In the future, the biggest surge in youth populations in likely to be in Sub-Saharan Africa. Its working age population (15 to 64) is set to grow by almost 150 percent by 2050. The report:

If countries in sub-Saharan Africa make the right human capital investments and adopt policies that expand opportunities for young people, their combined demographic dividends could be enormous: at least $500 billion a year, equal to about one third of the region’s current GDP, for as many as 30 years.

The report recommends policies to improve education and training, contraception (to lower birth rates) and access to finance. At the moment, 57 million kids aren’t in school and 73.4 million of 15 to 24- year-olds are unemployed. Worldwide, only 22 percent of women in this age range have access to birth control. “Ensuring young women’s access to voluntary family planning has the greatest impact on educational attainment and lifetime earnings,” the U.N. says.

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Society tends to over-emphasize the influence that politicians have in growing a nation’s economy. Structural factors like demographics are at least as important as individual decisions or policies. On the other hand, there’s a lot countries can do to take advantage of demographic opportunities (see here for a recent ranking of which countries are treating their youth the best and worst). In the future, the smart countries will invest in their youth and see the benefits. The shortsighted ones will let young people fester and reap the whirlwind.

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.

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