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The "New Population Bomb" is a Dud

The "New Population Bomb" is a Dud

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DifferenTakes 75, Fall 2012. This issue of PopDev's DifferenTakes series takes on the “new population bomb” and the underlying logic of the “youth bulge,” the belief that a high proportion of young people in a population leads to unrest. It looks at the contradictory view of young people as promise on the one hand or dangerous peril on the other and the problematic policies that result from the reproductive health arena to immigration policies.

DifferenTakes 75, Fall 2012. This issue of PopDev's DifferenTakes series takes on the “new population bomb” and the underlying logic of the “youth bulge,” the belief that a high proportion of young people in a population leads to unrest. It looks at the contradictory view of young people as promise on the one hand or dangerous peril on the other and the problematic policies that result from the reproductive health arena to immigration policies.

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Published by: Population & Development Program (PopDev) on Oct 05, 2012
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75 FALL 2012

The “New Population Bomb” is a Dud
By Anne Hendrixson
Editors’ Note: This issue takes on the “new population bomb” and the underlying logic of the “youth bulge,” the belief that a high proportion of young people in a population leads to unrest. It looks at the contradictory view of young people as promise on the one hand or dangerous peril on the other and the problematic policies that result from the reproductive health arena to immigration policies. — Betsy Hartmann and Anne Hendrixson

Sounding the alarm over current population trends, political scientist Dr. Jack Goldstone warns that the “youth bulge” is a “new population bomb.”1 Goldstone is a well-respected expert on social movements and international politics, who has served on a US Vice-Presidential Task Force on State Failure, and acts as a consultant for the US State Department, Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). He argues that our main population issue is not absolute global numbers, as it was when the original

population bomb came into vogue in the 1960s and 70s. Instead, current population-based threats supposedly stem from demographic trends like the age composition of a population, including a youth bulge. Youth bulges are thought to occur when young people comprise more than twenty percent of a country’s population, signaling the possibility of political rebellion and unrest.2 Goldstone suggests that this new population bomb is every bit as alarming as the old one. What he discounts is the fact that the first population bomb was a dud—a conceptual dud— that failed to explain the complexities of population trends. Its main impact was to spread unnecessary alarm about overpopulation, spurring urgent action to reduce population growth rates often at the expense of people’s reproductive freedom and human rights. At the height of the population bomb scare, fertility rates had begun to fall in many parts of the world, even before the introduction of widespread family planning programs.3 Population growth rates have continued to fall. The 2012 UN projections note that both world population and global fertility rates are lower than presumed in the 2010 projections.4 Yet we

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CLPP • Hampshire College • Amherst, MA 01002 413.559.5506 • http://popdev.hampshire.edu Opinions expressed in this publication are those of the individual authors unless otherwise specified.

are left with the legacy of population bomb alarmism: population is seen as a perpetual threat, even as demographic dynamics change. In this vein, the youth bulge concept gives rise to dangerous images and policies. As commentator Michelle Gavin puts it, “Any discussion of the youth bulge in Africa risks veering into the land of breathless alarmism—young men and street gangs and guns, oh my!”5

of any age—not only instigate violence, but recruit and deploy young people to enact it. This includes the US military, which has a robust history of training and arming young men in the global South, from the Taliban in Afghanistan to a $7 million program in West Africa to “shore up border controls and deny sanctuary to suspected terrorists.”9

The theory is not new. Since the end of World War II US military analysts and academics have defined the growing number of young people in the global South as a potential national security threat. A 1974 memo from the National Security Council presented young people in the global South as “more volatile, unstable, prone to extremes, of young people in alienation, and violence than an older Thirdly, the youth bulge theory does the global South as population.” Because of their prelittle to explain why young people act a potential national sumed innate volatility, young people peacefully, or abstain from politics, or security threat. were considered threats to their own act with violence in particular circumgovernments, multinational corporastances. Fundamentally, it ignores tions, and US interests.6 More recently, the role of power. Political scientist concerns about US control of Middle Leila Austin argues that looking at Eastern oil exports have centered on the youth bulge.7 power, agency and how rights are negotiated sheds That the youth bulge theory reflects US military and light on the roles Muslim young people play in cataresource concerns is no surprise—it was developed as lyzing change in the Middle East. “This will allow us to a predictive tool for defense analysts in the 1980s. envision them—not just as an age group—but as a social category capable of acting as collective agents Proponents of the youth bulge theory point to statisthat both define and react to their global and local tical evidence of a correlation between relatively high contexts.”11 Instead the youth bulge concept assumes numbers of youth in a country and the occurrence of youth violence, particularly from young men, and armed conflict.8 Yet that correlation actually tells us leads to damaging stereotypes. very little. The youth bulge is most often personified as an angry First, while the statistics show a correlation, they do young brown man from Africa, the Middle East, or not prove causality. The presence of a large group of parts of Asia or Latin America. He is often portrayed young people and the occurrence of violence does as Muslim, susceptible to extremism, and sometimes not necessarily mean that it was the young people driven by his very biology to unrest. This stereotype who are responsible. In the largely peaceful 2010-2011 is an example of what anthropologist Nancy ScheperEgyptian revolution—in a country that is purportHughes call “dangerous discourses” that over-predict edly at the peak of its youth bulge—the violence that individual acts of youth violence, even as they downerupted in response to the Tahrir Square protests was play the role of other forms of violence and structural from government security forces, not protesters. In inequalities that contribute to youth poverty and the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, young people were powerlessness.12 often recruited to serve in military movements run by powerful elites. The relationship between large youth The counterpart to this angry young man image is a populations and unrest is complicated. Often those in passive, veiled young woman, whose presence accenpower—whether government officials or local elites tuates the implied male violence and menace. Volatile

Secondly, the youth bulge theory cannot predict war or violence in particular locations with a high level of certainty. Anthropologist Mark Sommers points out that predictors of unrest are present in many South African Since the end of countries. He writes, “The fact that World War II so many wars have ended, and that US military analysts things are not far, far more unstable and academics across the region, directly challenges have defined the both the youth bulge and instability growing number and the urban threats arguments.”10



No. 75 • Fall 2012


male youth in the South thus become a threat not only to US national security, but also to the women in their own countries. Too often, veiled young women are also seen as victims of their own fertility, doomed to produce the next generation of angry young men. The angry young man and veiled young woman images do not reflect young people’s lives, politics or contexts, yet they impact policy and programming directed at young people. As Michelle Gavin writes, “Focusing too narrowly on violence and conflict rather than on underlying political tensions tends to yield a fairly sickly crop of policy prescriptions, all variations on the theme of ‘brace yourself’.”13 Here are some of the sickly policy prescriptions that flow or could flow from youth bulge theory. They are unlikely to champion young people’s rights or promote their well-being: ♦ Increased family planning is promoted in the name of reducing youth bulge threats and transforming the bulge into a productive economic force or a “demographic dividend.”14 Both goals are thought be achieved through reducing population growth rates and supporting young people with education and jobs. Here the positive aspects of empowering young people are emphasized, and the other alternative—youth bulge violence—is ever present. As USAID Deputy Administrator Donald Steinberg said, “The youth bulge are the young people we didn’t reach, the demographic dividend will be the ones we reached.”15 ♦ Linking fertility with violence and promoting family planning as violence prevention could undermine voluntary family planning and stigmatize young people trying to access services. At the same time, family planning that aims to reduce birth rates will fall short of promoting a reproductive justice agenda that addresses the full range of people’s complicated sexual, reproductive and child raising needs. ♦ Development policies employ the youth bulge concept to draw attention to the needs of young people, while assuming their potential for violence if their needs are not addressed. National and international development organizations—including the World Bank, UNICEF and USAID—use the concept to prioritize international development initiatives. A recent USAID toolkit (originally authored by Dr. Jack Goldstone) states, “we need to create conditions for

positive and constructive roles for youth in developing countries, so they will not turn to violence in an attempt to satisfy their needs.” This mindset is likely to promote patronizing stereotypes of young people as either “at risk” or violent. This binary thinking is unlikely to produce clear policy directives that advocate with and for young people. ♦ Youth bulge thinking could distort immigration policies, particularly in places where the majority of the population is “graying.” Concerns about young brown migrants from Africa and the Middle East have raised racial and nationalistic fears of white people being engulfed in parts of Europe, as have concerns about young Latino, Arab and South Asian migrants in the United States. These fears contribute to anti-immigrant backlash and racial profiling, especially where right-wing immigration policies, such as Arizona’s hardline immigration laws, are already in existence. Since 9-11, the US Department of Justice and allied agencies have questioned and detained thousands of young Arab and Muslim men in racial profiling sweeps.16 ♦ Youth bulge thinking could influence criminal justice in the US. It supports population-based criminal theories like the debunked “superpredator” theory of the 1990s, which claimed that large populations of young men contributed to the rise of more criminals who would commit ever more violent crimes. It resulted in the increased policing of young Black and Latino men in the US.17 ♦ Defense strategists use the concept as a rationale for continued US military interventions in the Middle East. In a meeting on US Department of Defense spending for 2012, the Secretary of the Army stated that the “youth bulge can create a population of unemployed, disenfranchised individuals susceptible to extremist teachings that threaten stability and security.”18 Successful policy and programs must instead treat young people as people, and not as a cohort defined by age. They should be based on the recognition that young people come from a wide range of backgrounds, sexual orientations, genders, racial and ethnic identities, political beliefs, and economic classes. Programs must respect and advocate for and with young people, in all their complexity, and reject assumptions of youth volatility. Finally and ultimately, programs should reject alarmist profiles that undermine young people’s integrity and rights.



No. 75 • Fall 2012


Anne Hendrixson is Assistant Director of the Population and Development Program at Hampshire College.

She is a reproductive health advocate, writer, and speaker focused on the politics of global health and population. Anne is an alumna of Hampshire College (class of ‘91) and has a Masters from the International Development and Social Change Master’s Program at Clark University.

1. Jack Goldstone, “The New Population Bomb: The Four MegaTrends that will Change the World,” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 89, No. 1, (January/February 2010), 31.
2. See Anne Hendrixson, “The ‘Youth Bulge’: Defining the Next Generation of Young Men as a Threat to the Future,” DifferenTakes, No. 19, (Winter 2003), http://popdev.hampshire.edu/projects/dt/19.

3. Matthew Connelly, Fatal Misconceptions: The Struggle to Control World Population, (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008), 373. 4. United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division, World Population Prospects: The 2010 Revision, Highlights and Advance Tables, Working Paper No. ESA/P/WP.220, 2011. 5. Michelle Gavin, “Africa’s Restless Youth,” Current History, (2007), 220, http://www.cfr.org/africa/africas-restless-youth/p13236. 6. U.S. National Security Council, National Security Study Memorandum 200: Implications of Worldwide Population Growth for U.S. Security and Overseas Interests, (December 1974), http://pdf.usaid.gov/pdf_docs/PCAAB500.pdf. 7. Hendrixson, Ibid. 8. See for instance, Henrik Urdal, “The Devil in the Demographics: The Effect of Youth Bulges on Domestic Armed Conflict, 1950-2000,” The World Bank, Social Development Papers: Conflict Prevention and Reconstruction, No. 14, (2004). 9. Craig S. Smith, “U.S. Training North Africans to Uproot Terrorists,” New York Times, May 11, 2004. 10. Marc Sommers, “Governance, Security and Culture: Assessing Africa’s Youth Bulge,” International Journal of Conflict and Violence, Vol. 5, No. 2, (2011), 292-303. 11. Leila Austin, “The Politics of Youth Bulge: From Islamic Activism to Democratic Reform in the Middle East and North Africa,” SAIS Review, Vol. 31, No. 2, (Summer/Fall 2011), 81-96. 12. Nancy Scheper-Hughes, “Dangerous and Endangered Youth: Social Structures and Determinants of Violence,” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, Vol. 1036, (December 2004), 13-46. 13. Galvin, 220. 14. Anne Hendrixson, “What’s Wrong with the Demographic Dividend Concept?” DifferenTakes, No. 44, (Spring 2007). 15. Vicky Markham, “Live from Rio+20, Day Four: ‘Plenary Floor, Demographic Dividend and the Youth Bulge’” (June 22, 2012), http://www.rhrealitycheck.org/article/2012/06/22/live-from-rio20-day-four-plenary-floor-demographic-dividend-andyouth-bulge. 16. Sameer M. Ashar, “Immigration Enforcement and Subordination: The Consequences of Racial Profiling after September 11,” Connecticut Law Review, Vol. 34 (2002), 1185. 17. Anne Hendrixson, “Superpredator Meets Teen Mom: Exploding the Myth of Out-of-Control Youth,” in Jael Silliman and Annanya Bhattacharjee, eds, Policing the National Body (Boston, MA: South End Press, 2002), 231-258. 18. US Senate, Subcommittee of the Committee of Appropriations, Department of Defense Appropriations for Fiscal Year 2012: Statement of Hon. John M. McHugh (May 18, 2011), http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/CHRG-112shrg99104436/html/CHRG112shrg99104436.htm.



No. 75 • Fall 2012


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