Youth Bulges, Urbanization, and Conflict

(August 2009) Whether young people will gain access to education and employment opportunities over the coming years and decades is one of the major questions facing developing countries with large youth populations. The answer not only affects the well-being of youth, but affects many countries’ stability and security as well. In countries struggling to provide stable sources of income and opportunity, large youth populations are sometimes linked to outbreaks of violence.

Some studies have indicated that the number of armed conflicts have declined significantly since the end of the Cold War, especially the number of large-scale, high-casualty conflicts.1 However, demographic trends and pressures are creating tensions that lead to the outbreak of low-intensity conflict such as protests or riots, or more organized political upheaval and internal armed conflict. Henrik Urdal, senior researcher at the Center for the Study of Civil War and associate editor of the Journal of Peace Research at International Peace Research Institute in Oslo, Norway, talked with PRB about youth bulges and urbanization and their effects on conflict.

Violent conflict is increasingly taking the form of localized low-intensity disruption and outbreaks of violence. “These youth bulges tend to increase the risk of low-intensity armed conflict outbreak very significantly. What I also find is that there is no increased risk of civil wars or high-intensity conflict,” Urdal says. Many countries, such as those in East and Southeast Asia, have avoided conflict stemming from large youth populations in recent decades by providing education and employment opportunities to them. But according to Urdal, much of the contextual data that show the relationship between youth bulges and conflict is hard to capture from the state level. “But what microevidence tends to suggest is that it’s really opportunities for youth that matters…employment opportunities and education opportunities.”

With half of the world’s population now living in increasingly crowded urban areas, and with most rural-to-urban migrants being youth in developing countries, it is important to examine the links between youth bulges and urbanization. But there is currently little evidence that rapid urbanization affects the relationship between youth and conflict at the country level. What causes urban violence is still largely unknown, according to Urdal. “There is a lot we don’t know about what explains urban violence and we should clearly monitor these trends to see what the population factors mean.”

Which population trends present real challenges and which have been overhyped in the popular media? “I’d be very careful to present population pressure as a global threat,” says Urdal. “Usually, environmental factors and population pressure don’t contribute to these large-scale wars…Clearly, age structure is a very important factor [to pay attention to.] Although most countries are moving toward lower fertility, which means lower youth bulges in the future, there are certain areas and countries especially in sub-Saharan Africa and countries such as Afghanistan that have continued high fertility levels, which means they will continue to have youth bulges in the decades to come.” The migration of people from rural to urban areas continues to pose a demographic challenge and needs to be addressed, says Urdal. “What I think has been vastly overblown, especially in the media, is the issue of climate refugees…What we know is that climate change is likely to lead to increased migration but much of this will happen very gradually…But most of these people who move will not necessarily pose any security threat. Most of these people will typically go into the rural-to-urban migration movement, which is much more significant than the climate refugees. Approximately 1 billion people will move from rural to urban areas over the next 40 to 50 years.”

Eric Zuehlke is an editor at the Population Reference Bureau.


  1. Human Security Report Project and World Bank, Mini-Atlas of Human Security (New York: Simon Fraser University, 2008).