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Youth Bulges and the Social Conditions of Rebellion

Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2012

Commentary on generational conflict and the radicalism of youth goes back at least as far as the ancient Greeks -- from the tragedies of Oedipus to the comedies of Aristophanes, we find the younger generation contesting the power and morals of their elders. Such conflict is probably always present to some degree in every family and every generation. Yet the coalescence of individual youthful impatience with the ways of the older generation into social movements of rebellion or revolution is something that happens more rarely and only when certain economic, political and social conditions prevail.

It is far too simple, and misleading, to simply point to a “youth bulge” and say that a wave of rebellion and revolution will follow. In fact, most countries with large youth bulges have remained stable, with a normal, reasonable state of cross-generational tension, for decades. The countries that had revolts in the Arab Spring of 2011 -- Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Libya and Syria -- all had large youth bulges. But other countries in the region and beyond, from Western and Central Africa to Pakistan, did not experience the same upheaval despite having even larger youth bulges. Indeed, in many countries a youth bulge is seen as an economic boon, providing a new generation of workers to fuel economic growth. The most accurate statement we can make is that a large youth bulge raises the risks of political turmoil and revolt, other things being equal, but is only likely to spur major political rebellion and revolution when other factors favor that outcome as well. ...

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