MARCH 5, 2016
AT no point in recorded history has our world been so demographically lopsided, with old people concentrated in rich countries and the young in not-so-rich countries.
Much has been made of the challenges of aging societies. But it’s the youth bulge that stands to put greater pressure on the global economy, sow political unrest, spur mass migration and have profound consequences for everything from marriage to Internet access to the growth of cities.
The parable of our time might well be: Mind your young, or they will trouble you in your old age.
A fourth of humanity is now young (ages 10 to 24). The vast majority live in the developing world, according to the United Nations Population Fund.
Nowhere can the pressures of the youth bulge be felt as profoundly as in India. Every month, some one million young Indians turn 18 — coming of age, looking for work, registering to vote and making India home to the largest number of young, working-age people anywhere in the world.
Already, the number of Indians between the ages of 15 and 34 — 422 million — is roughly the same as the combined populations of the United States, Canada and Britain.
By and large, today’s global youth are more likely to be in school than their parents were; they are more connected to the world than any generation before them; and they are in turn more ambitious, which also makes them more prone to getting fed up with what their elders have to offer. Many are in no position to land a decent job at home. And millions are moving, from country to city, and to cities in faraway countries, where they are increasingly unwelcome.
Democratically elected presidents and potentates are equally aware: Aspirations, when thwarted, can be a potent, spiteful force. No longer can you be sure that a large swell of young working-age people will enrich your country, as they did a generation ago in East Asia. “You can’t just say, ‘Hey look, I’ve got a youth bulge, it’s going to be great,’ ” said Charles J. Kenny, an economist at the Washington-based Center for Global Development. “You’ve got to have an economy ready to respond.”
“It is the big development challenge these countries face — more decent jobs,” he added.
A case in point are the caste protests that paralyzed a prospering North Indian state in recent weeks. They were driven by a powerful landowning caste whose sons can neither support themselves through farming nor secure the jobs of their choice. So the protesters took to the streets demanding caste-based quotas for government posts. They blocked rail lines and set trucks on fire; the police say 30 people died in the unrest.
This is just part of India’s staggering challenge. Every year, the country must create an estimated 12 million to 17 million jobs.
Worldwide, young workers are in precarious straits. Two out of five are either not working or working in such ill-paid jobs that they can’t escape poverty, according to figures recently released by the International Labour Organization. In the developing world, where few can afford to be unemployed, most young workers have jobs that are sporadic, poorly paid and offer no legal protection; women are worse off.
Youth unemployment is especially striking in richer countries. Across Europe, youth unemployment is 25 percent, not just because of a sluggish economy but because many young Europeans don’t have the skills for the jobs available, from electricians to home health aides; it explains in part the surge of anti-immigrant sentiment on the Continent. In the United States, nearly 17 percent of those between the ages of 16 and 29 are neither in school nor working.
That does not bode well. An increase in youth unemployment is a better predictor of social unrest than virtually any other factor, warned Raymond Torres, the Labour Organization’s research chief. “The social contract is weakened because of unfulfilled promises,” he said.
In some ways, the global demographic portrait reflects what we are doing right: Our babies are far less likely to die, and our grandparents live longer. Women have fewer children, and die less often in childbirth. More good news: Primary school enrollment has shot up in the developing world. In India, for instance, nearly all children are enrolled in school.
But even those gains are uneven. According to the latest survey carried out by a national nonprofit called Pratham, half of Indian schoolchildren enrolled in fifth grade are unable to read from a second-grade textbook, and half cannot subtract. They’re in school, but they are not learning much.
What’s more, even modest education fuels ambition. Yet it can also frustrate those who can’t find work. Across the Middle East, where authoritarian rulers invested in education, youth unemployment is soaring — along with unrest.
The global generation gap is widening. In Germany, the median age is over 46, and in Russia, 39. In the United States, the median age is over 37; in India, 27; and in Nigeria, just over 18. China is running out of young workers so fast that it ended its decades-old one-child policy last year to allow married couples to have two children.
The worldwide age divide makes migration — along with job creation in the global south — critical to balancing the world demographically, according to Rainer Münz, head of research and development at the Erste Group Bank in Brussels. Mr. Münz proposes what he calls a system of “demographic arbitrage,” with industrialized countries competing for talent from elsewhere. Even China, he maintains, will have to enter that race.
“A demographic arbitrage between aging societies with a shrinking work force and youthful societies would be good thing, if the whole thing could be managed,” he said.
Many politicians are making the opposite case. Just last week, Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, told migrants not to come to Europe, which has sought to stanch the flow by offering development aid to the migrants’ home countries.
YET development aid can’t tamp down dreams. As poor countries prosper and their young become more educated, they are more likely to migrate. It explains in part why India has the largest diaspora in the world: In 2015, 16 million Indians were living outside India, double the number in 2000.
Perhaps most worrisome for some societies is the bachelor gap.
In China, where girls have been systematically culled from the population, there were 34 million extra men in 2010, according to census data. In India, there are 17 million more men and boys between the ages of 10 and 24. That makes the marriage market even more competitive, which puts a man without a good job at a major disadvantage. Many are bound to be bachelors for life — a potent formula for violence, some scholars say, especially against women.
Little surprise then that the recent caste protests in India took place in Haryana, the state with the sharpest gender imbalance in the nation, with 879 women for every 1,000 men in the population. This lopsidedness stems from a disdain for daughters. Technology and rising incomes have allowed expecting couples to pay for illegal sex determination tests, and female fetuses are often aborted. A result is a surplus of young men, making it necessary to import brides from other parts of the country.
And so the parable of our times may really be: Mind your daughters, or your future will come to ruin.
Somini Sengupta is the United Nations correspondent for The New York Times and the author of “The End of Karma: Hope and Fury Among India’s Young.”