PRB Discuss Online: Does a Young Age Structure Thwart Democratic Governments?

(November 2009) Does a large proportion of young adults in a country’s adult population make it difficult for that country to gain or retain high levels of democracy? Recent demographic and political research by Richard Cincotta and colleagues suggests that it does. They have tied the “youth bulge” in developing countries to a slowing of the transition to democracy—or even a movement away from democracy in such countries as Venezuela. But these researchers are optimistic about long-term political prospects because of current demographic trends. As populations continue to age in South American, North African, Asian, and then sub-Saharan African countries, their youth bulge will dissipate, and Cincotta and colleagues expect more countries to enter the community of liberal democracies.

During a PRB Discuss Online, Richard Cincotta, demographic consultant for the U.S. defense and intelligence communities, answered participants’ questions about the links between demography and democracy.

Nov. 12, 2009 1 PM EST

Transcript of Questions and Answers

Emeka Nwosu, Nigeria: I come from a community where we reverence the elderly. But i have observed that of recent the moves to cause a breakdown of law and order have always had the blessings of elderly/royal members of the society. How can you relate this observation to your assertion
Richard Cincotta: This research is not about how you perceive relationships between young people (with whom you associate) and elders, and it does not try to determine who is responsible for actions occurring in political conflict. This research focuses on the political instability that is associated with youthful population age structures (a distribution in which young adults make up a large proportion of the adult population). To hear more about this relationship, I recommend that you listen to Eric Zuehlke’s excellent interview of Henrik Urdal of the International Peace Research Institute in Oslo (PRIO) on PRB’s website: A great deal of research has been conducted on the political volatility of populations with a”youthful age structure” (called youth bulge populations by political scientists) using data from over 150 countries over the past 40 years. The co nclusion of that research, by several authors, is that countries with a large proportion of young adults are more prone to a new outbreak of low-level political violence and instability than countries with more mature age structures. This result remains, even after filtering out the effects of income per person and different types of governance. The research on liberal democracy builds upon the work on civil conflict conducted by Henrik Urdal and colleagues at PRIO, Jack Goldstone (George Mason U.), Christian Mesquida (York U.), Elizabeth Leahy Madsen (Population Action International) and others. My recent research (with John Doces, Bucknell U.) uses the category”FREE” in annual Freedom House assessments ( to indicate the presence of a liberal democracy, and we use data published by the UN Population Division to measure the youthfulness of national populations. We find that countries have a much smaller chance of being assessed as a liberal democracy when their age structures are young, than when those populations are more mature. There are two effects. The first is the “advent effect”: countries with very youthful age structures are less likely to rise to the FREE category (liberal democracy) until fertility has declined significantly and, almost two decades later, the age structure has matured. This effect can be seen in the rise to high levels of democracy by countries in East and Southeast Asia (South Korea, Taiwan, Indonesia, and until recently, Thailand). The second, stronger effect is called the “maintenance effect”: countries that become liberal democracies when they have a very young age structure have trouble retaining that assessment. In a demographic sense, “youth bulge countries” that become liberal democracies arrive at this regime type too early. These democracies tend to be fragile. Within 10 years, most shift to lower levels of democracy (“PARTLY FREE”) or become authoritarian (“NOT FREE”). Examples of countries that reached liberal democracy “too demographically early” include countries in South America (Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Chile). Some became liberal democracies in the 1960s and 70s, but suffered through electoral violence, military take-overs, and insurgencies. Most of them retreated to more restrictive regime types. Chile is a good example. It rose to liberal democracy with a very young and radicalized population, then suffered a military coup and authoritarianism at the height of it youth bulge. As Chile’s age structure matured, however, its authoritarian regime became less popular—and ultimately it was replaced by a resilient liberal democracy. Our theory predicts that, as their population age structure matures, the political environment of other Latin American countries will become less volatile and less fractionated, and will follow Chile’s lead. If governments take advantage of their “demographic bonus”, job growth is likely to occur, the pervasiveness of “youth culture” is likely to fade, and with fewer unemployed young people, political organizations (and government security services) will find it more difficult to recruit. Researchers who have studied how countries become democratic (including Samuel Huntington and Philippe Schmitter) have found that when politics become less volatile, when crime drops, and the economic climate improves, elites (big businessmen and property owners) are unwilling to support authoritarians. Why? Because authoritarians, their families, and cronies, are bad for business—they control commerce and trade, and extract wealth and favors. Interestingly, our theory is consistent with the view of Thomas Hobbes (a 16th century political philosopher) who recognized that citizens tend to trade their political rights for greater security—a relationship that has come to be called the “Hobbessian bargain.” When there are external and domestic threats, citizens seem willing to give up their freedoms to someone who can guarantee their security. When threats disappear, citizens typically desire a more free society. Youth, who have not yet acquired material wealth, built a family, or organized a commercial network, are less interested in this tradeoff and can afford to be risk-takers.

Emeka Nwosu, Nigeria: If you feel that a young age structure thwart democratic governments within third world countries, then is it not the working/elderly class that jolt them into this action
Richard Cincotta: Please see my response to your previous question.

Epokor Michael Kudjoe: It is the elderly who rule and make laws in these region that i leave in, so how can the the young age structure thwart democratic governments?
Richard Cincotta: Please see my response to Emeka Nwosu.

Mario Enrique La Riva Málaga: Could it be possible to find a population policy approach to use overpopulation as an asset instead a weakness? May it be an international policy making more than a mere national one?
Richard Cincotta: Mario, This research, so far, does not find a clear relationship between population size and liberal democracy In fact, we do not find a relationship between population size and any type of regime—authoritarian, partial democracy, or liberal democracy. The focus of the research is on the age structure of a county’s population. Several measures indicating the population’s degree of youthfulness provide a good indication of the likelihood that a country will be assessed as a liberal democracy, even when national income per capita, population size, and resource wealth are statistically taken into account. The measure that I have used is called the “youth bulge proportion”, which I measure as the proportion of young adults (15 to 29 years of age) in the working age population (15 to 64). I have tried other measures of age structural youthfulness, including the one that Henrik Urdal uses (15-24 year olds divided by all adults, 15 and older) and the one that Elizabeth Leahy has used (under 30 divided by the population). They produce similar results. In order to create a “novel” way to test the hypothesis, I have used the ex-Soviet and Eastern European countries as a type of test of this hypothesis (see the paper linked to this website). It passes the test.

Dr. Anima Sharma: Dear Mr. Cincotta, We often associate young people with less experience, impatience, Lack of foresight, lack of analytical ability and restlessness. In that light your study may be somewhat OK, but History tells an altogether different story. According to it, it is the young people of a country who have played a vital role in the Freedom Fights, establishment of their own Government/ Empire and few trends leading to far reaching effects. What are your observations in this regard? Best, Anima Sharma
Richard Cincotta: Anima and Meskerem: This research often surprises readers. However, it doesn’t surprise demographers who are familiar with the way that development and political reform typically follow after progress through the demographic transition (declines in fertility and childhood mortality) and subsequent changes in age structure. The effect of age structure on regimes is a population-level effect, not one that is necessarily reflective of individual feelings, nor should it necessarily correspond to your perceptions of young adults whom you know. I recommend that you read my response to Emeka Nwosu and listen to PRB’s interview with Henrik Urdal. Also, please try this thought experiment: Identify a country with a youthful age structure that underwent a “youth-led” democracy movement. Did it become a liberal democracy (with Western European style freedoms)? If the uprising succeeded, it probably became much less than liberal democracy—for example, Iran’s 1979 revolution (led to theocratic authoritarianism), the Russian and Chinese Revolutions (led to authoritarian communist states), the French Revolution (led to Napolean’s empire), the American Revolution (initially led to a partial democracy that restricted voting and tolerated slavery). Often youth-led movements are met with backlash that is meted out using equally idealistic youth recruited by the state—for example, the Basij militia in Iran’s suppression of the June demonstrations, and the PLA’s suppression of the Tiananmen. While idealism is, indeed, a quality associated with adolescents and young adults, we all need to remember that idealism takes many forms—many of which are not shared by our circle of friends and relatives. Popular notions of ideal communities—like those generated by religious fundamentalism, communism and ethnic nationalism—are not conducive to the rise and stability of a liberal democracy. Interviews of “suicide bombers” who survived because their vest-bomb did not explode, indicate that they are intensely idealistic rather than religiously suicidal (seeking the afterlife). Most young soldiers and police are also intensely idealistic.

Meskerem Bekele, Ethiopia: Dear Richard Cinctta, I appreciate your research but it makes me surprise. How it comes? in Sub-Saharan countries especially in our country even most people think that when you are being old or greater than 55 or 60 years old you can’t do nothing and you being retire in every aspect of your life. So most of us are going to hope today’s adult young for accomplishing our democracy thirsty. But according to your research… So could you tell me how it will be happen?
Richard Cincotta: Meskerem, I addressed your question in my response to Anima Sharma.

Robert Prentiss: Does your study track the causes of this? Are the young easily manipulated by the media and/or new political elites to surrender their freedom to choose democratic governmenmts? If not, what are the other causes, if any, that showed up?
Richard Cincotta: Robert,I addressed your question in my response to M.E. Scherer.

Juanita Tamayo Lott: Given that social movements historically are generated by the young rather than the older, vested status quo (US and African colonies rebelling against Britain) is youth structure per se really a relevant factor in thwarting democratic governments? What about the role of cohorts?
Richard Cincotta: Juanita, You’ve brought up an interesting point. There are two types of comparable effects. You’ve mentioned the first: cohort effects, which arise from mass behaviors associated with a group in which individuals were born around the same years and went through similar experiences (such as, motorcycle riding by baby boomers). And then there are life cycle effects, which are patterns of changing behavior over the lifetime (for example, drivers’ risk-taking declines with age).

Geoff Dabelko: Rich, Why do you think the mainstream demography community is so slow or unwilling to pick up the research questions you have pursued? Thanks, Geoff
Richard Cincotta: Geoff, My answer to your question is somewhat controversial. I credit the unwillingness of senior demographers to promote or publish this work is a “cohort effect” (Clearly a senior demographer at PRB has broken this taboo!). Today’s senior demographers—most of them baby boomers—were trained by academics whose careers began shortly after World War II or even before. Before World War II, demographers ventured into topics in eugenics, which can be broadly defined as “the study of all agencies under human control which can improve or impair the racial quality of future generations.” While this field included legitimate studies of heritability, it also harbored individuals who sought to explain the world in terms of genetic inferiors and superiors. This latter perspective was used in all corners of the globe as a justification for institutionalized racism, and became the ideological foundation of political fascism in Europe. To distance themselves from eugenics, post-war demographers distanced themselves from any type of demographic study of mass behaviors. Then along came another controversy: the resurgence of the Malthusian thesis in the 1960s and early ’70s as an explanation for evolving world conditions and environmental degradation. As result, I believe, demography turned inward toward census and survey-related studies, and to influencing public health and sociology (and here demographers have succeeded). Nonetheless, the pathway into demographic studies of state behavior had already been launched with Ansley Coale’s early work on age structure. His book (with Edgar M. Hoover) in 1958 predicted the demographic bonus (or demographic dividend). Economic demographers (including Ronald Lee, Andrew Mason, David Bloom, David Canning and others) have taken Coale’s thesis even further—and now the demographic bonus is accepted by international agencies as a product of fertility decline (see the recent article in the Economist, Oct. 31, 2009). But demographers, trained to stay away from topics that dealt with “mass behaviors” refused to venture into “Coalean” studies of conflict and governance, or to encourage its publication or promote it among students. I believe this was a mistake. Demographic research on civil conflict suggests that a youthful age structure substantially increases the risk of an onset of civil conflict, but it does not find that age structure solely determines conflict or that it is powerful enough to “doom” states to failure. In addition, the conclusions of the research suggest that, after fertility declines and age structure matures, countries with youthful age structures will experience a reduction in “civil conflict risk” and an increase in the probability of being assessed as a stable liberal democracy. In other words, “the youth bulge thesis” does not assert that any country or region is necessarily war-like or undemocratic by nature—each country should experience some risk reduction as it goes through the age structural transition. There’s evidence that this is occurring: the geographic distribution of civil conflicts is shrinking as the number of “youth bulge” countries decreases (see the National Intelligence Council’s “Global Trends 2025” report, which illustrates this on page 20 as the “demographic arc of instability”; at: Another fascinating aspect of this research: To a large degree, changes in women’s role in society, from child bearer and homemaker to participant in the workforce and public life, drives the age structural transition. This presents a powerfully optimistic image of a “demographic peace” that might emerge in a future time when the world’s women are fully participating in their society, and making their own choices, and the age structures of all the world’s countries have grown mature. It’s a nice image, but there are a few complications looming along the way (see Neil Howe and Richard Jackson’s article, “the Battle of the (Youth) Bulge”. See my comments on these issues in the Environmental Change and Security Project’s blog at:  

G. De Bartolo: Did you find any correlation between political consensus and young structure in USA recently? If yes what part has have the use of modern communication(sms, youtube, e-mail etcc)?thank you
Richard Cincotta: G.Please see my response to Laura Underwood’s question. It addresses some of the same issues.

Laura Underwood: What are the statistics of birth rates in the 1970’s compared to today in the united states?
Richard Cincotta: Laura and G., The study does not focus on birth rates (the number of babies born for every 1000 people in the population), nor does it try to figure out the role of communications. It draws a simple conclusion—one that is obvious to those who understand how the demographic transition has spread around the world and how youthful age structures are currently distributed: countries with a mature age structure are more likely to become liberal democracies and stay liberal democracies than countries with youthful age structures. What about the US? At the time of its founding, the US could not be considered a liberal democracy. Voting was originally restricted to land-owning white males, and one-third of the population of the southern region was enslaved. According to US Census Bureau, by 1800, half of the US population was under the age of 16 (comparable to Afghanistan and Democratic Republic of the Congo today). The two most recognized “regime data sets” (Polity IV and Freedom House assessments) many more years of political infighting, civil war, Indian wars, and racial and criminal violence passed before US citizens lived under a liberal democratic regime. When did the US reach the liberal democracy mark? The Freedom House dataset begins in 1972, so it is impossible to determine when their assessment system would have deemed the US a liberal democracy from these data. Interestingly, when I’ve informally interviewed democracy researchers who use this scoring system, some argue that the US should not have made its present very high democracy rating until 1965—after the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was in place (which was used by the federal government to overturn local regulations (primarily in southern states) that restricted a significant proportion of African Americans from voting. I’m still not sure when this assessment would have first considered the US to have become “FREE”. My demographic model tells me there was a 50-50 chance in about 1920 (the year that women received the vote in federal elections). In the late 1969s and early ’70s, however, the US “youth bulge” was on the rise, driven by a surge in US fertility after the end of World War II, and the transition of those baby boomers from adolescence to young adulthood. Did the youthful US age structure contribute to the experimental youth culture and political unrest of the time, and ultimately to the conservative backlash that followed? Some researchers believe that it did. As the baby-boom generation entered the adult years, the US youth bulge proportion (the population of 15-to-29 year olds in the working age population, 15 to 64) rose to its highest level, 0.41—which is around the values that Malaysia has today; and it is higher than Indonesia’s current youth bulge proportion (0.39; Indonesia is now a liberal democracy). This value is still much lower than current values in Afghanistan (0.53), Iraq (0.50), or Nigeria (0.52). Despite that “border-line” sized bulge, this period was politically tumultuous and fractious. Public demonstrations by the Left were met by a backlash of voting that pushed the political system to the Right. However, the US has not declined from Freedom House’s category “FREE” from 1972 (when the Freedom House system was initiated), to today. Thus, age structure is not the only issue. It does, however, provide some insight into political dynamics in many countries.

Elizabeth Leahy Madsen: How can we be sure that populations will continue to age and youth bulges dissipate in countries and regions where fertility rates remain high, particularly sub-Saharan Africa?
Richard Cincotta: Elizabeth, As you well know, we can’t be sure that fertility will decline to much lower levels soon in all countries in the western, central and eastern regions of Africa, or in Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan and northern India. The UN Population Division and US Census Bureau projections assume slow rates of fertility decline in these countries, but these assumptions are based on the history of trends in other regions where, very often, women’s traditional and legal status was higher, where political systems were more stable, and where outlets for contraceptives and information where more accessible. Recent surveys show fertility trends in some of these countries to be “plateauing”—stalling after a short period of decline. And even if rapid fertility declined rapidly (as it did in Iran in the 1990s), these youthful countries would still experience at least another 20 years of “youth bulge”, until a younger “small family generation” came of age. If fertility remains high in sub-Saharan Africa, the age-structural youthfulness that contributes to its countries’ political fragility will be extended further into the future. Without some slowdown in the ongoing surge of children and young adults, weak infrastructure-poor states will be continuously challenged to provide their rapidly growing numbers of young citizens with needed services and jobs. Failure to provide these will undercut the already tenuous legitimacy of the region’s weak states. On the other hand, let’s not be too pessimistic. Three decades ago, few Western demographers would have predicted that the Middle East/North Africa Region (MENA) would now include countries near or below replacement fertility, such as Tunisia, Iran, Turkey, Lebanon, and Algeria. And others, including Morocco, Egypt, Syria, and Libya have experienced substantial fertility decline. According to my calculations, the age structures of Tunisia, Lebanon and Turkey are very close to the point where countries have had a 50-50 chance of being assessed as a liberal democracy (when the youth bulge proportion is about 0.39; the youth bulge proportion is measured as the population, aged 15 to 29, divided by the working-age population, 15 to 64). Even with its very young age structures, sub-Saharan Africa has several liberal democracies—although the proportion of the total number of countries is relatively small (which is consistent with predictions). There are four liberal democracies in West Africa: Ghana, Benin, Mali and Cape Verde—Senegal recently dropped out of this category (this instability is also consistent with predictions). All four of the liberal democracies—South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, and Lesotho—are countries with a high prevalence of HIV and significant AIDS-related mortality.

M.A.Scherer: In light of your research, what do you make of common assumptions that younger people, enchanted by Western fashions and music, are less likely to tolerate authoritarian governments? I seem to have picked up a kind of loose assumption that this is true in reporting on Iran, for example.
Richard Cincotta: M.E. and Robert, As I’ve written to Emeka Nwosu and Meskerem Bekele, this research is about an age structural effect, not about individuals or groups within the population. As the age structure of a country becomes more mature (as it moves through th age-structural transition), its chance of becoming a liberal democracy, and remaining one, improves. Personally, I believe that the “ease of recruitment” effect is the principal driver in this relationship. However, it is not clear that it is all that matters. Changes in age structure run in parallel with key societal changes that are difficult to define measure. These include: modernization (perhaps related to your observation), increases in parents’ perceived value of their children, and the improved status of women. Our research cannot demonstrate that these are influential in the “democratic transition”. However, it seems reasonable that each of these are associated with progress in the demographic transition and the shift from very young to more mature age structures.

Alberto Rizo, MD: Do Democratic governments being overcome by poverty and high unemployment rates have a chance to succeed? I’m afraid I don’t see a clear future. What would you recommend?Alberto Rizo, Bogota Colombia
Richard Cincotta: Alberto, My research only looks at very high levels of democracy, which researchers call liberal democracy (the Freedom House category “FREE”). However, by looking at the data, you do get a sense of how demography and economics influence the political stability of countries. If you’re thinking about Colombia, the data suggest a very positive future for your country. Colombia is going through dramatic changes in its age structure that are driven by a fairly rapid fertility decline. If age structure can be considered a clue to the future, I would suspect that the timeline for FARC is running out. With Colombia’s youth bulge declining it will be more and more difficult for FARC to recruit. Improvements in educational attainment and job prospects should help speed this transition to a more peaceful and democratic state. Here’s a prediction from my work on civil conflict: the age-structural model suggests that insurgency (FARC) will be increasingly difficult to sustain. I believe FARC will be “out of action” in 5 to 10 years. When that happens, Colombia is likely to be assessed as a liberal democracy (it is very close now). Actually, many poor countries are able to sustain low levels of democracy quite well. High levels of democracy (liberal democracy, with total freedom of the press and assembly, and organizational rights given to extremist parties) may be unadvisable.

Dr. Subhrangsu Santra: People will get high level of democracy if the educated (not only literate) young adult will be involved having minimum basic knowledge about the socio-economic, political, economic and cultural field of the country. In most of the developing countries are highly influenced rather to say controlled or run by the different religious group. Is it possible to assure the equal representative from the all religious groups?
Richard Cincotta: Your question is well beyond the scope of my research. I will say, however, that it should help countries if all minority groups and regions were provided with educational opportunities (particularly for women), health services and economic activities. When large minority groups and regional groups lag in the demographic transition, they retain their “age-structural youthfulness” – and they continue growing rapidly. This can produce ethnoreligious … which exacerbate existing political tensions and produce new ones. The most obvious example is Lebanon. While Christians and Sunni populations have passed rapidly through the demographic transition, Shiites have languished in poverty and been marginalized politically. The result has been a very youthful and politically active Shiia population capable of changing Lebanon’s political balance. Another example is India. UP and Bihar remain very youthful while South India and India’s cities are passing through the age structural transition. If UP and Bihar continue to [be] left out of the educational, economic and fertility transitions, I think it will mean significant problems for the Indian state. Some say that this problem is already manifesting itself in migration to city slums and the re-emergence of the Naxalite Movement.

Usha Natampalli:No, youth are not thwarting democracy in the Indian context. In the Indian context, most youth in urban areas are either … employed or pursuing higher education or both. However, they are part of the political system and accrue benefits and enjoy the freedom to vote for candidates [they feel are right for the job.] STatistical information may reveal that the proportion of urbanites who cast votes may be [similar] to their counterparts in rural areas. My questions are:

1. Will the youth bulge have greater influence on democracy?

2. Do women have a greater role in democracy when constitutional provisions for them are restricted?

3. Does male child preference operate as an obstacle and thwart democracy?

4. Is there a need for strategic planning to adopt national policy [to encourage a single child per family]. Will it enable the country to have a more liberal and stable government?
Richard Cincotta: Usha, The “youth bulge” research does not have answers for all your questions. Its scope is very limited. However, demographers note that India is a difficult case to categorize: Perhaps because of its size and heterogeneity, and perhaps because of its development policies, it seems to be going through several demographic transitions simultaneously. The earlier and more rapid transition is occurring in the southern states and urban areas. Age structure is indeed maturing rapidly and education, mostly provided by the private sector, has produced an extraordinary generation of qualified workers and professionals in teh south and in the major cities. On the other extreme is UP and Bihar. Fertility decline has stalled, and this should be of concern to the Indian government. Oddly, many Indian policymakers seem unconcerned; they see this youthful, poorly educated population as future workers. I believe this is a mistake. Instead, sust