A mathematical look at the next likely destination in the Arab Spring

Give this kid a job or prepare for the worst.
Give this kid a job or prepare for the worst.
Image: Reuters/Mohamed Abd El-Ghany
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Young people have always been pegged as rabble-rousers and revolutionaries. But researchers have long struggled to pinpoint why youth bulges—increases in the ratio of a country’s young people relative to its total population—and political unrest go hand in hand.

But researchers are getting closer. In a paper published last month (PDF) in the International Journal of Conflict and Violence, Davidson College economists provide strong evidence that a youth bulge alone won’t cause unrest. But when it’s combined with a high unemployment rate for that youth cohort, discontent is almost guaranteed. “The causal roots of violence,” the authors state, “lie in the pressure youth cohorts exert on the total labor force.”

Youth bulges occur during periods of low infant mortality rates coupled with high fertility rates in a country. Populations tend to regain their usual distribution as women choose to have fewer children in response to higher rates of survival through childhood, but before they do so, the population size of one or two generations tends to bulge.

Previous research has mostly leaned on the idea that adolescents are inherently more prone to violence and impulsive behavior, and more likely to be swayed by charismatic political and religious leaders. There has been some mention of how economic drivers contribute. For instance, last year, the LA Times reported that Afghan youth had become disillusioned by their lack of future prospects, leading many to join the Taliban. “If all Afghans had good jobs, if we had peace and stability, we would not go for the fight,” Ahmad Mokhtar, a young man imprisoned in Kabul for fashioning a roadside bomb told the Times. “Without those things, the jihad will continue to the end of the world.” Researcher Henrik Urdal (PDF) stated in a 2004 paper that the combination of youth bulges and poor economic performance could be “explosive,” but he lacked solid evidence for a relationship between the two factors.

The new measurement developed by Noah Bricker and Mark Foley, which they call the Youth Risk Factor, or YRF, is the ratio of 17- to 26-year-olds to the size of a country’s total labor force. “Our theory,” they write, “is that youth, regardless of education level, cause increased violence as the ratio…to the total labor force grows, indicating the strain exerted on labor markets and governments.”

They then compared these YRFs to measures of conflict guided by the Heidelberg Institute, which rates conflict on a point scale, giving increased values for incidents as they progress from latent disputes to full-out war. A good example of how YRF differs from traditional measurements, which only compared youth population to the total population, is Tunisia: Using typical measurements, the country’s youth bulge ratio hovers around the world average of 0.27, and actually dips below it in more recent years. But the YRF for Tunisia has been well over the world average of 0.44—it’s averaged at 0.60 over the last decade, and spiked at 0.63 during the 2011 Jasmine Revolution.

Restless countries like Egypt and Syria show similar results. Both countries’ traditional youth bulge ratios hovered just above 0.30, but their YRFs have reached as high as 0.72 and 0.88, respectively. The opposite is also true: the relatively calm Morocco and Qatar have YRFs close to the world average, despite having traditional youth bulge values similar to countries experiencing unrest.

What lessons can we learn from the notion that youth bulges and low employment don’t mix? First, governments should be using the index as a final warning, study co-author Bricker told Quartz. In Jordan, for example, the YRF has risen above 0.8 in recent years, which could indicate that trouble is brewing.

“People have wondered whether Jordan might be impacted by the Arab Spring movement,” Bricker said, “and its demographics make it hard to see a scenario where they are not affected.” He added that the Jordanian government “has been more proactive than others” to remedy the issues at hand, “but they need to tread carefully.”

Based on demographic trends, the YRF in Jordan will actually continue to rise before it begins to fall, he added. For countries like Jordan, apprenticeships and other efforts to make the job market more youth-friendly may suffice, Bricker said. But Egypt is past that point. “Employment, at this point,” he said, “depends on personal connections to the military and not actual qualifications. Egypt’s economy will only rebound completely if the labor market becomes more meritocratic.” According to the YRF theory, political stability follows from there.