Population growth contributes to conflicts, according to several studies. There is also evidence that a “youth bulge” in societies, creating a high proportion of young men, can lead to more conflicts and violence. But can violence really be exacerbated by education of a young population?
By Frank Götmark
High population growth has repeatedly been connected to conflicts and civil unrest. In his book Collapse: How societies choose to fail or survive Jared Diamond (2005) suggested that population growth, high population density and linked resource scarcity were factors that contributed to the genocide in Rwanda. Likewise, population growth, in combination with climate change, drought and resource shortages, have been suggested to be contributing factors to the civil war in Syria (Kolankiewicz 2016, Abel et al 2019).
During the last decades, demographers, social scientists and other researchers have looked more closely at conflicts and the role of the population factor. There are many types of conflicts in different countries, from riots that do not lead to fatalities, to ones that result in single or scattered homicides, to genocide (wars between countries have declined significantly). Since power relations, religions, and other factors may be involved in conflicts it is not at all obvious that population growth or density are important factors, some have argued.
However, one population aspect that seems to contribute to conflicts and riots, examined more closely by Richard Cincotta (2015) and other researchers, is the occurrence of a high proportion of young males in a population or society. This population segment is usually calculated as a ratio; young males aged 15 to 29 to the total male population 15 and older. When this ratio is high, it is referred to as a “youth bulge”. Indeed, one can imagine that too many young males can create problems in society. Malcolm Potts and his co-authors (2015) write: “The overwhelming majority of soldiers, terrorists, criminals, European football hooligans, political radicals … are men in the 15 to 29 years old age group. Men in their twenties also possess the highest testosterone levels, associated with dominance and competition. Relative to married men at the same age, unmarried men have higher testosterone levels and are three times as likely to murder someone.”
Some support for the idea that a youth bulge can lead to conflicts came from Henrik Urdal’s (2008) study of 27 Indian states, 1956-2002. He analysed “whether high population pressure on renewable natural resources, youth bulges, and differential growth rates between religious groups are associated with higher levels of armed conflict, political violent events, and Hindu-Muslim riots.” The results were pretty clear: “A young age structure is the only demographic factor that is statistically associated with increased risks of all three forms of political violence.” (i.e., armed conflict, political violent events, and Hindu-Muslim riots).
Yet, the idea of youth bulges causing problems and conflicts has met with resistance in the academic community. For instance, in an overview of the subject in the respected journal Science, Mara Hvistendahl ended her article by stating “The theory that explained the 2011 Arab Spring may not work as well for the next bout of unrest.” But a new study by Hannes Weber (2018) suggests that youth bulges indeed can lead to conflicts. He analyzed political violence (intended to change the social order or the system of government, by a non-government agent) within 183 countries over the period 1996-2015. The youth ratio decreased in 155 countries, in several substantially: more than 10 percentage points in countries as diverse as Algeria, Thailand, Cuba, and Ireland. By contrast, 28 countries became more youthful, notably Yemen, Chad, and Somalia. Weber related youth bulges and violence to unemployment and degree of education (schooling) within countries over time.
The results were quite clear: “within countries, a decrease in the youth ratio is generally associated with a decrease in the number of violent deaths from terrorism or other internal conflicts, and vice versa.” With respect to unemployment, we can understand that frustration can lead young men to riots, perhaps because they also can see growing inequalities in societies. According to Weber’s analysis, if a youth bulge coincides with 10% or more of the young males being unemployed, effects on political violence are significant. But surprisingly, education among young men is also a factor that can lead to political violence. Youth bulges translate into more political violence if at least 50 % of young male adults (24–29 years) have gone through secondary education. Moreover, as the percentage of young men who have passed tertiary education continues to increase beyond about 8%, this increased education also becomes a significant factor for increased political violence (see graphs below).
Thus, beside increased unemployment, youth bulges tend to become a threat to stability when coinciding with expansions in post-primary education among young people. Weber concludes that “a large youth bulge increases the risk that many young graduates’ expectations for work, accommodation, and consumption cannot be met. Extremist and fundamentalist groups can profit from this situation since young and unbound people are their main supporter base.”
Of course, this study does not argue for postponing or halting higher education in any country. To be sure, countries with better levels of education are in general experiencing less political violence. But in demographically youthful countries, rapid expansions in secondary and tertiary education can lead to political instability. Many young people are awarded degrees, but since their numbers are large, the labor market cannot provide adequate positions and fulfill the growing expectations. During a transition following the onset of fertility decline, educational expansion in the presence of large youth bulges can be an explosive combination. Moreover, another lesson is that Weber’s findings add to the benefits of “aging populations” (high median age) and population decline, which The Overpopulation Project has described earlier. An increasing proportion of elderly (men and women) in countries should most likely reduce, not increase political violence.
Solid line is calculated as the linear interaction effect of youth bulge and educational attainment for predicting political violence. Histograms show the relative frequency distribution of country-years in the respective education group (note: absolute values do not correspond to y axis scale). Dataset contains 183 countries, study period is 1996-2015.
Abel, G.J. et al. 2019. Climate, conflict and forced migration. Global environmental change – Human and policy dimensions 54, 239-249.
Cincotta, R. 2015. Demography as Early Warning: Gauging Future Political Transitions in the Age-structural Time Domain. J Intelligence & Analysis 22, 129-148.
Hvistendahl, M. 2011. Young and Restless Can Be a Volatile Mix. Science 333, 552-554.
Kolankiewicz, L. 2016. Overpopulation, Drought and Syria’s Devastating Five-Year Civil War. CAPS, Californians for population stabilization, https://www.capsweb.org/blog/overpopulation-drought-and-syria%E2%80%99s-devastating-five-year-civil-war
Potts, M. et al. 2015. The Pill is Mightier Than the Sword. Int J Health Policy Manage 4, 507–510. 10.15171/ijhpm.2015.109
Urdal, H. 2008. Population, Resources, and Political Violence: A Subnational Study of India, 1956-2002.
Journal of Conflict Resolution 52, 590-617.
Weber, H. 2019. Age structure and political violence: a reassessment of the “youth bulge” hypothesis. International Interactions 45, 80-112
Thanks to Hannes Weber for helpful comments on the manuscript. He is a researcher at Mannheimer Zentrum für Europäische Sozialforschung (MZES), Universität Mannheim in Germany. Hannes has just published a German book about population and demography: Weber, H. (2019): “Der demographische Wandel: Mythos – Illusion – Realität.” Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 121 pp.