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.
In the 1960s, from the New Left movement of the U.S. to the May 1968 student protests in France, from the Red Guards in China to the Mexico City uprising, the world was inflamed by rebellious youth. Yet the 1940s and 1950s were relatively quiescent. On a broader scale, from the 1780s to the 1860s, youth movements swept across revolutionary Europe, while the latter half of the century seemed to belong to the conservatism of the older generations, as represented by Metternich, Bismark and Thiers. So we must look more closely at the role of youth and ask: Why in some eras was the world swept by waves of youthful rebellion, while in others conservative elder statesmen maintained their dominant authority?
Youth Cohorts and Youth Bulges
The seminal scholar of generational conflict is the German sociologist Karl Mannheim, who pointed out that a youthful age-cohort can become a self-conscious generation in opposition to its elders only if it undergoes some unifying experience distinctive from that of their parents. This experience might be a major military victory or defeat that creates a new sense of national destiny linked to the coming-of-age of a particular generation, or it might be a shift in the economy and in labor markets that links a change in life chances to a particular generation’s experience. It might also be a shift in the standing of a nation in the international arena, such that a new generation comes of age feeling a need to struggle to redeem its nation; for this reason many youth movements in the 19th and 20th centuries were linked to nationalist movements.
The key to all these factors is social change: If there is no marked event or change in social trends to separate the life experience of one generation from the next, then there is little likelihood of shifts in values or conflicts across generations.
Interestingly, a marked change in the size of a youth cohort, compared to earlier ones, can itself form a kind of watershed experience that creates a distinctive worldview on the part of that cohort. For example, a sharp rise in the birth or survivorship rate that produces a large increase in the size of a cohort coming of age, compared to its predecessors, can create a genuine sense of empowerment on the part of that generation. The leading edge of such a “baby boom,” to use a phrase coined to describe the phenomenon in the United States following World War II, grows up in conditions in which a marked shift in social investment is allocated to them. New schools, perhaps even new communities, are built to accommodate their families. A large fraction of economic growth is attributed to the growth in population that they embody. New trends in consumption are motivated by their own taste. As the shift from stagnation to growth is embodied in their coming-of-age as a generation, such a cohort can come to believe it is uniquely empowered to shape and change its own society. It was just such a postwar cohort, not only in the United States, but also in Western Europe, Latin America, China, South Korea and Africa, that helped produce the global wave of idealistic rebellions in the 1960s.
Such an increase in the birth or survival rate of the young, producing a markedly larger cohort of youth, produces an obvious “bulge” in the age distribution of a society. A number of scholars have measured the youth bulge as the ratio between the population aged 15-29 and the population aged 30 and over, and argued for a link between the presence of such a youth bulge and the likelihood of revolution. One link is that of the distinctive generational self-consciousness that frequently develops in a new, large cohort.
Another link, less appreciated but equally important, is the demonstration or vanguard effect that a larger youth cohort can provide. Studies of collective action have noted that a key ingredient for successful protest is the existence of a core of committed leaders and followers. Such a core of radicals willing to take risks can form a focal point for rebellion and the center of networks for recruiting followers. Of course, if conditions are such that the majority of the population is not interested in rebellion against the existing regime, the size of that radical core may be irrelevant. However, if social and political conditions are such that a majority of the population is at least thinking about rebellion, the dynamics of revolution may be greatly affected by the age distribution of the population.
Even in times of widespread discontent, the participation of people in demonstrations or opposition movements depends to some extent on how great they perceive the support of that opposition movement to be. The more wary among the discontented may only join an opposition that appears widespread and successful, whereas the bolder dissidents may join a movement while it is still relatively small. Thus the bold lead, and the more timorous follow; the outcome depends on whether the bold are numerous enough to win over the timid. Given the greater propensity of the young to join opposition movements, a shift in the age structure that tilts the population in the direction of ever larger youth cohorts can affect the volatility of the whole population.
To be perfectly clear, the presence of a youth bulge is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for rebellion or revolution. If it shares a distinctive, radicalizing experience, even a small youth cohort can adopt a rebellious stance. And if the government is sufficiently inept or divided, and the population at large has sufficient grievances to turn it against the regime, a rebellion or revolution can ensue despite the absence of a youth bulge. Such was the case in most Eastern European nations as well as in Russia in 1989-1991.
Conversely, even a large youth cohort may either fail to adopt a revolutionary outlook, or fail to inspire a revolutionary movement across society, if a united government provides effective leadership and presides over economic success. For example, Singapore, Malaysia, Botswana and Brazil all had exceptionally rapid population growth in the 1970s that produced a surge in youth, but in each case a firm government and cumulative economic growth kept radicalism in check. Egypt under Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak through the 1980s had rapid population growth and large youth cohorts, many of whom adopted the revolutionary outlook of fundamentalist Islam and undertook terrorist efforts aimed at dislodging the regime. However, due to state subsidies, economic growth, massive United States aid and flexible leadership, no broader revolutionary struggle developed -- unlike in Iran, Afghanistan and Algeria.
This is because in the absence of other factors that conduce to rebellion, age structures have little or no impact. It is only in the presence of other conducive factors that youth bulges add explosiveness to the social mix. A youth bulge makes it easier to mobilize the population for political protest. So if other factors arise that weaken or divide the government, the way is open for youth to lead in revolt. Recent research on youth bulges and violence has shown that while societies with a large youth bulge are generally more prone to civil violence, this effect is far greater in countries with aging autocrats or with regimes that are already transitional or intermediate between democracy and dictatorship.
Social Conditions for Youth Revolts
The conditions for revolt or revolution to spread throughout society are reasonably well established: First, the national government must be closed to broad participation or popular control. Second, the government must be weakened by some sort of crisis. This crisis may be a material one, such as a military or development failure, fiscal distress, sustained inflation or sharp spikes in food prices. Or the crisis may be ideological, as when a government seeks to impose an ideology that is widely opposed by its own elites, or when a government is seen as compromised by identification with foreign enemies. Or it may be a succession crisis that leads elites to shift allegiances and contend for power in a coming leadership change. Several of these items may combine to create a widespread sense of uncertainty and anxiety about the future.
In such periods of social anxiety, a great deal depends on which groups are willing to support the regime and which groups still perceive the leadership as legitimate. Governments that are perceived as just and effective generally retain the support of key elites and thus popular groups; they are therefore quite resistant in the face of youthful challenges. On the other hand, states that are widely considered ineffective or unjust by their population rapidly lose key supporters and can succumb with astounding quickness in the face of challenges -- as in the Philippines in 1986, the Soviet Union in 1989 and Tunisia and Egypt in 2010-2011.
In some cases of state crisis, such as military defeat or fiscal distress, the reaction of elites is to try to reinforce the existing state through reforms. This reaction is more likely if the elite is relatively united and not feeling threatened. However, if elites are divided into competing factions or feel threatened with regard to maintaining their position, crises of this sort are likely to produce a polarization of elites into factions for and against the state. Thus a third condition for widespread rebellion or revolution is that there are divisions or tensions among the elites. These conditions are generally brought about by a change in patterns of social mobility that produces greater uncertainty and competition for elite positions, or by changes in state policy that attack certain elites, producing the same results. Elites can also be divided as a result of corruption or privileges that create “in” groups and “out” groups, with the “in” groups enjoying enormous and disproportionate rewards.
Finally, the expansion of higher education may threaten traditional elites while creating large numbers of new aspirants for elite positions. In fact, it has typically been the case that revolutionary youth movements have been preceded by a vast expansion in secondary or higher education that exceeds the expansion in opportunities for further upward career mobility. In these cases, the expansion in the percentage of educated youth often far exceeds the increase in the “youth bulge.” Prior to the English Revolution of 1640 and the French Revolution of 1789, there was an extraordinary expansion of university enrollments, without a concomitant expansion of positions in the state and church bureaucracies, the typical destinations for the college educated of those eras. Over the late-16th and early 17th centuries, enrollments at Oxford and Cambridge rose by 400 percent, more than twice as fast as population growth; in France from the 1730s to the 1780s, matriculations in law at the leading universities rose by 77 percent while the population climbed by only 16 percent. The result was a rapid growth in the number of unemployed and underemployed professionals -- doctors, lawyers, journalists and itinerant preachers -- many of whom became staunch opponents of both the monarchy and conservative elites.
A similar dramatic expansion of university enrollments with much slower increase in elite positions occurred on the continent in the early 19th century and played a role in radicalizing students and professionals prior to the revolutions of 1830 and 1848. Revolutions of the late-20th century and the Arab revolts of the early 21st century have similarly been preceded by expansions in higher education. It was recent university graduates, often educated abroad and then returning home to find limited avenues for their ambitions, who led revolutionary movements in many Asian and African colonial states and dictatorships.
Universities are also significant in the formation of radical youth networks because they physically bring together young people, predominantly males, often in close proximity to major political or cultural centers. Throughout China's modern history, students have provided the spark for radical and revolutionary movements, from the May 4th movement of 1919 to the Tiananmen Square revolt of 1989, in large part because universities concentrated vast numbers of youth seeking change in the major cities, especially Beijing. Universities have also been the main center for the diffusion of modern radical Islamic ideology and the key recruiting ground for leadership of guerrilla movements in Latin America.
However, student and youth rebellions by themselves do not generally produce widespread violence or bring down regimes. For that, a coalition between students and other social groups -- such as workers, peasants and rebellious soldiers or sailors -- is crucial. Thus a fourth condition for youth movements to trigger major revolts is the development of conditions favoring broader popular mobilization. These conditions include grievances that could motivate various groups in the population to seek remedies -- cumulative declines in wages for workers or in access to land for peasants -- plus networks that facilitate collective action in seeking remedies. Such networks may be informal neighborhood groups, autonomous village organizations, religious associations, more formal revolutionary parties or ethnic or nationalist liberation groups.
The rapid growth of cities, which generally cluster workers in working-class neighborhoods where they can contemplate their common condition in close proximity to political or industrial targets for protests, is frequently a factor in popular mobilization. Cities often concentrate precisely that demographic group most available and inclined to rebellious action: unattached young males. When rapid urbanization is accompanied by rapid economic growth, such expansion is not necessarily destabilizing, but problems arise when urban concentration grows in conjunction with a lagging economy.
Clearly, this is a long list of necessary factors: a closed state, a growing state crisis, elite divisions or tensions -- frequently coupled with rapid educational expansion -- and popular grievances aligned with mobilization networks. For this reason, the connection between youth bulges and revolutionary movements is hardly simple. The correlation between youth bulges and political crises in the post-World War II world is due to the fact that in these years more rapid population growth and larger youth bulges have been most common in countries that have lower per-capita income and more dictatorial regimes.
Inasmuch as large youth cohorts are, in and of themselves, neither necessary nor sufficient conditions for outbursts of political violence, it may seem that they are not central to assessments of political risk. However, that would be an error. When political and economic conditions suddenly shift, the presence of a large youth cohort can make reactions more explosive. Thus in Indonesia, while the presence of large youth cohorts in the 1970s and 1980s was not cause for concern, when these were combined with the sudden collapse of the economy in the late-1990s and indications that the political system would remain closed and under Suharto, the result was a national paroxysm of protest that resulted in Suharto being driven from power. Conversely, the shrinking of youth cohorts in China that will occur after 2015 as a result of the imposition of the one-child policy in the 1980s will not fully shield China against revolt should there be a widespread failure of the Chinese economy. However, it will likely reduce the intensity of popular reactions to any economic missteps after that date.
What we have seen in the Arab uprisings of 2011 is a confirmation and repetition of this pattern: When large youth cohorts combine with rapid growth of higher education, rapid urbanization and a closed authoritarian regime, they can create conditions favorable to revolt. While that potential may be held in abeyance by strong economic performance and elite unity, revolt is likely to erupt in the presence of lagging real wages, unemployment and elite divisions.
There is reason to be sanguine about youth conditions in major emerging market countries such as Turkey, Mexico, Brazil, India and Indonesia. In these countries, governments are increasingly open. Markets are increasingly transparent. Economic opportunities are opening for educated and ambitious youth. Finally, economic growth is strong, while population growth is slowing down. Corruption is still a major threat to stability in these nations, but other factors are moving to offset risks of rebellion. However, the opposite is true in much of sub-Saharan Africa and many nations in the Middle East and South Asia. In these regions, many countries still have fast-growing youth cohorts, combined with authoritarian or highly corrupt regimes, rapid expansion of higher education, yet uneven political growth and significant elite divisions based on ethnicity or religion.
Promoting better governance, reducing corruption and improving political and economic opportunities for youth is vital for these regions. Otherwise, it seems only a matter of time before the crescent from sub-Saharan Africa across the Middle East to southern Asia is repeatedly rocked by youth-led revolts and revolutions.
Jack A. Goldstone is Hazel Professor of Public Policy and senior fellow at the Mercatus Center, George Mason University.
This paper is based on work prepared for the John M. Olin Center for Strategic Studies at the Harvard University Center for International Affairs