Big populations of young people linked to violence

* Do large groups in young people ages 15-24 increase the risk of armed conflict, terrorism and riots?


Daily Times Monitor

KARACHI: It has frequently been suggested that exceptionally large youth groups or cohorts, the so-called ‘’youth bulges’’, make countries more susceptible to political violence.

Henrik Urdal from the Centre for the Study of Civil War, The International Peace Research Institute, Oslo examined this in a study titled ‘A Clash of Generations? Youth Bulges and Political Violence’ in 2006.

In the study of civil war, youth bulges are argued to potentially increase both opportunities and motives for political violence. This claim is tested in a statistical model for internal armed conflict for the period 1950-2000, and for data for terrorism and rioting for the years 1984-1995. The expectation that youth bulges should increase the risk of political violence receives robust support for all three forms of violence.

A leading theorist on the role of youth in political violence, Jack A. Goldstone, argues that youth have played a prominent role in political violence from the English Revolution to the Revolutions of 1848, and that the existence of a ‘’youth bulge’’ has historically been associated with times of political crisis. A historian has even linked economic depression hitting the largest German youth groups to the rise of Nazism in Germany in the 1930s. Generally, it has been observed that young males are the main protagonists of criminal violence as well as political violence. It has been suggested that young men are more aggressive due to high male sex hormone levels.

More recently, youth bulges have become a popular explanation for current political instability in the Arab world and for recruitment to international terrorist networks. In a background article surveying the root causes of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, Newsweek editor Fareed Zakaria argues that youth bulges combined with slow economic and social change has provided a foundation for an Islamic resurgence in the Arab world.

The literature on youth bulges has focused in particular on spontaneous and lowintensity unrest like nonviolent protest, riots and rebellion. Urdal argues that youth bulges are relevant for explaining the occurrence of more organized forms of political violence like internal armed conflict.

Motives for committing political violence can be economic – like poverty, economic recession or inequality – or political, like lack of democracy, absence of minority representation or self-governance. Most experts focus on how large youth cohorts facing institutional bottlenecks and unemployment, lack of political openness, and crowding in urban centers may be aggrieved, increasing the risk of political violence. But, Urdal argues that the existence of serious grievances is not sufficient for collective violent action to erupt.

If young people are left with no alternative but unemployment and poverty, they are increasingly likely to join a rebellion as an alternative way of generating an income. Higher levels of education among men act to reduce the risk of political violence. As educated men have better income-earning opportunities than the uneducated, they would have more to lose and hence be less likely to join a rebellion. In Saudi Arabia, approximately four million people will add to the labor force over the current decade, equaling two-thirds of the current Saudi national work force.

For large youth groups, the economic climate at the time they enter into the labor market is particularly crucial. To the degree that income opportunities are determined by general economic performance, we would expect that when economic conditions generally deteriorate, large youth cohorts will be rendered particularly susceptible to lower income opportunities, reducing the income they forego by signing up as a rebel.

A tool that countries can exploit in order to respond to youth bulges is the expansion of higher education. Education is generally expected to increase the opportunity cost of rebel labor. High enrollment rates at all levels of education are expected to be associated with a reduced risk of conflict. However, it has been suggested that when countries respond to large youth groups by expanding tertiary education, this may produce a much larger group of highly educated youths than can be accommodated in the normal economy. Unless the government is able and willing to absorb a surplus of university graduates into the public sector, as was done by the government of Egypt, prevailing unemployment among highly educated youth segments may cause frustration and grievances that could motivate political violence.

It has been argued that high unemployment among educated youth is one of the most destabilizing and potentially violent sociopolitical phenomena in any regime, and an expert notes that a rapid increase in the number of educated youths has preceded historical episodes of political upheaval. One expert argues that the expansion of higher education in many countries in the Middle East, producing large classes of educated youth that the labor market cannot absorb, has had a radicalizing effect and provided new recruits to militant organizations in the area.

Several studies suggest that starkly autocratic regimes and highly democratic societies are the most peaceful. This relationship is assumed to arise as a result of both opportunity and motive, as semidemocratic regimes may have greater openings for conflict compared with autocratic states. At the same time, lack of political rights may also constitute a motive for conflict. The potential for radical mobilization for terrorist organizations is argued to be greater when large educated youth cohorts are barred from social mobility by autocratic and patriarchic forms of governance.

One expert argues that as terrorism is essentially an urban phenomenon. Another expert observes that historically, the coincidence of youth bulges with rapid urbanization, especially in the context of unemployment and poverty, has been an important contributor to political violence. Youth often constitute a disproportionately large part of rural-to-urban migrants; hence, we would expect that in the face of large youth cohorts, strong urbanization is likely to lead to an extraordinary crowding of youth in urban centers.

A factor that partly determines the violent potential of youth bulges is the access to emigration. Emigration works as a safety valve, and may mute the negative effects of large youth cohorts. Largescale migration from Europe to the U.S in the nineteenth century helped to prevent youth-generated violence in Europe in this period.