The world is currently witnessing the largest youth population ever recorded. Many countries around the globe are experiencing ‘youth bulges’ – disproportionally large shares of youth aged 15–24 years old in the population. While youth bulges have traditionally caused concern and been associated with an increased risk both of armed conflicts and of repression by governments fearing protests, youth bulges are also known to have spurred economic and social progress. Sub-Saharan Africa is the region that will be facing the largest youth populations in the decades to come. With this project, we aim to find out how countries in Sub-Saharan Africa can best avoid the curse of having large youth populations and instead reap potential bonuses. Such bonuses have already been achieved in many Asian countries, including China, Vietnam and the ‘Asian Tiger’ economies, that all have experienced rapid economic growth due to the cheap labor that the large youth populations represented. In this project, we are not only looking at the potential that demographic change leads to economic growth, but also how large youth groups can lead to social and political change, or ‘dividends’. Over 60 percent of the current population in Sub-Saharan Africa is under 25 years old, and education has been expanded significantly over the past decades, massively increasing human capital. Armed conflict and violent extremism, on the other hand, are increasingly pressing challenges in the region. This project hopes to increase out knowledge about how countries in the region may best create opportunities for youth, so that countries may benefit from their young age structure in a way that causes progress, while at the same time escaping a potential demographic curse.
Having a youth bulge (large population of 15–24-year olds) has been presented as both a curse and a potential blessing. On the one hand, it can be associated with more political violence and repression, and on the other it could spur economic growth. The latter scenario – what economists call the demographic dividend – is assumed to be driven by having large numbers of energetic youth in the labor force. The specific conditions that lead to the curse versus dividends are not well documented or understood. This project responds to a general need for understanding why some countries follow a positive and some a negative trajectory when faced with a youth bulge, and to understand the gender dimensions of these processes. We focus more specifically on how to harness the potential for demographic dividends in Sub-Saharan Africa, where demographic youth bulges are most common. We conceptualize demographic dividends more broadly than has previously been done. Specifically, our analyses will seek to identify conditions, policies, and investments that can produce favorable conditions in youth bulge countries – not only for economic growth, but also political dividends (more vibrant and inclusive political participation) and social dividends (inclusive norms and attitudes) and how these might be mutually reinforcing to foster sustainable development and more peaceful societies.
To analyze the demographic curse or dividends, we will combine in-depth and comparative analyses of four countries (Benin, Cote d’Ivoire, Mali, and Senegal) with cross-national statistical analyses. We leverage this mixed-methods and multi-level research design to better understand how trajectories are shaped by complex interactions between attitudes/norms at the individual level, youth engagement in civil society and politics, state policies in the youth area, and other structural and historical factors.