It all comes down to the young population


What happens when young people leave the rural areas? How can the region achieve what is referred to as the demographic bonus – and how can it reap the benefits of the demographic dividend? A look at demography shows the following: What is most important is promoting women’s rights and education.


Schoolchildren and their teacher on a schoolyard in the 40,000 inhabitant city of Kaina, East Congo. Photo: Christoph Püschner/Diakonie disaster relief

By Jan Rübel

Jan Rübel is author at Zeitenspiegel Reportagen, a columnist at Yahoo and writes for national newspapers and magazines. He studied History and Middle Eastern Studies.

All contributions

A man gets out of his green Landrover. On the trailer, the two side doors folds up into a roof. Quickly he puts up a desk with a computer. Just as quickly, he is surrounded by adolescents, here in the Umkhanyadue District in Kwazulu-Natal, South Africa. “Not so fast,” he laughs. His organisation is called Mpilonhle, meaning “The good life” in Zulu. The adolescents try their luck with the computer. They are being educated about AIDS prevention, and they discuss their problems with the social worker. His Landrover is a type of learning vehicle. “We are a port of call for them,” he says. “So that the kids can understand they situation and continue their education.” Actually, these young people have a reason to be hopeful: The strong economic growth should create enough jobs for them. However, there is a problem: The economic growth and wealth are spread unequally, and they do not tend to reach the young people in rural Umkhanyadue. This is why Mpilonhle counts on education on wheels. “Only those who learn can escape poverty.”


In Kwazulu-Natal, there is a threat of constant migration of young people to the big cities. Liveable perspectives for the future are required in order to stop this trend. In order to achieve this, people need to break habits and they must, quite literally, get in motion. In Umkhanyadue, “mobile units” do this. Those who recognise population trends and rise to the challenge will keep their opportunities for the future.


Democracy wasn't always high on the agenda.

Demography provides the facts to back this up. This science examines developments within a society based on the three areas of birth rates, mortality rates, and migration. From this, the key areas for intervention, such as family planning, retirement planning, professional training, and health services can arise. Countries can learn from each other although there is no silver bullet; each country requires a tailor-made solution. For Africa, there are two winning formulas: Promoting women’s rights and education.


Identifying demographic trends is like a temperature curve. Demography has not always been this popular. When biologist Paul Ehrlich published his book “Die Bevölkerungsbombe” (The population bomb) in 1968, he scared the world’s population with his warnings of famines. They’re inevitable, he warned, given that the material resources would not suffice in relation to the overpopulation. “Overpopulation” became a “charged term” because it is the reason for a large number of problems. States institute programmes for family planning. China even imposed the one-child policy on its population. However, given that some of his predictions were incorrect, demography was featured less and less in public debates since the 1980s. Having faith in the power of the economic system was once again in vogue: With successful economic and social development, a belief held for a long time, would, for example make the overpopulation of African countries south of the Sahara desert go away all by itself. However, this did not happen. Even the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) of the United Nations of 2001 did not address the issue of demography at all. At the turn of the millennium, however, the topic demography was back. On the one hand, climate change and higher food prices have raised awareness of the issue among larger parts of the population. On the other hand, demographers have payed more attention to detail: They are no longer only focussing on the pure size of populations but also at its composition, the relations between the different ages groups, regional dispersion within a country as well as factors like international migration and demography as a global issue. They are demanding that politicians listen more carefully: DSW (Deutsche Stiftung Weltbevölkerung - German Foundation for World Population) estimates that twelve thousand billion dollars would need to be invested for family planning in developing regions annually; double the amount invested currently. This would be money well spent on the prevention of other costs.


The knowledge of demographers helps the politics of tomorrow

A pastoralist on his dried up pasture in Marsabit, Kenya. Photo: Christoph Püschner/Diakonie disaster relief
A pastoralist on his dried up pasture in Marsabit, Kenya. Photo: Christoph Püschner/Diakonie disaster relief

Time is pressing. Sociologist Jack Goldstone has identified four demographic mega trends that will decisively determine the course of the history of mankind. Firstly, by 2050 the world population will rise to 9.2 thousand billion people. Secondly, by 2050 the number of people aged older than 60 years of today will rise to 780 thousand billion. 80 percent of these elderly people will be living in developing and emerging countries. Thirdly, it is there in particular that the largest amount of younger people ever will be growing up. Given that it is becoming more and more difficult for them to meet their expectations for the future, levels of frustration and violence rise and as a result, people go where they see a brighter future for themselves. Finally, the fourth mega trend is urbanisation. By 2050, two-thirds of humanity will live in cities, a large part of which will be mega cities in emerging and developing countries.


There does not appear to be an alternative to these mega trends. And yet clever policies can influence or even overcome the consequences of this development or its consequences. But understanding demography is necessary to do this.


A society creates a good starting point for material wealth when the workforce is larger than the “dependents”, i.e. children and the elderly. Such a society has what is referred to as a “demographic bonus”. This bonus is usually created when a society reduces its high birth rates, when more children survive or grow up healthily, and when mortality among adults decreases. It goes without saying that this demographic bonus comes with a time window: When birth rates decrease, the proportion of elderly people will increase in future, i.e. the bonus will come to an end. This is because the fit for work will belong to the group of the elderly (“dependents”) at some point whereas lower birth rates mean that fewer people fit for work will take their place.


What is referred to as demographic dividend in this is the economic gain that a country can make in this thanks to the bonus. What exactly does this mean for a country? Why is it that this bonus is converted at a profit into an economic dividend in one part of the world and in a different part of the world this is not the case?


The value of the demographic bonus

Children from Ikoko-I-Mpenge, a pygmy village in the Congolese rainforest. Photo: Christoph Püschner/Bread for the world
Children from Ikoko-I-Mpenge, a pygmy village in the Congolese rainforest. Photo: Christoph Püschner/Bread for the world

The purpose of a trip to a number of countries is to show what the situation of the demographic bonus is and how differently the chances of earning a demographic dividend are utilised: We will examine South Korea as a country utilising the dividend. Then we will continue to North Africa and the Middle East for examples of how the demographic bonus fails to be utilised. Our next stop will be sub-Saharan Africa with its population structure that is still miles away from reaching its demographic bonus. Finally, we will look at Germany and China, both of which are actors in the period after their demographic dividend.


It was only 50 years ago, that the first country that we are going to examine, South Korean, was an isolated and poor agricultural country. The average South Korean family had five children. Then politicians, economists, and scientists developed a comprehensive approach aimed at promoting the country: Investments in education and family planning were made. Broader access to birth control and improved health care for mothers and children meant lower birth and mortality rates. This country created a demographic bonus for itself. The realisation of just how important labour market participation of woman is for economic progress came with a delay. The revenue generated was reinvested in education. Today South Korea is among the richest countries in the world. The Berlin Institute for Population and Development has proven that no country has developed in socio-economic terms without its birth rate having decreased along with this. This was proven in an analysis of 103 current and former developing countries.


However, the demographic bonus can also become a burden and manifest itself in violence. In March 2011, teenagers in the Syrian city of Daraa sprayed dissident slogans on the wall of a school. When the security forces arrested 15 of them, they probably did not think that this would be the start of a civil war. Only days prior to this, it was also young people, this time from the slums of Cairo, who held demonstrations in Tahrir Square in protest to the dictatorship. In both of these cases, young people directed their anger from the margins of society to the centre of power. The Arab revolts caused by this surprised many, but not the demographers. They had predicted that the growing number of young people in Arab societies - a demographic bonus, in fact - would respond with frustration unless their politicians would do something for young people. The people in charge suffered the consequences of their politics: By neglecting the young population fit for work, they created a high level of youth unemployment and frustration due to the unfulfilled hopes of many university graduates. The same holds true for the lack of political freedom and raging corruption. Especially because more young people in these country had enjoyed a good education, these young people vented their anger over the very limited job market and the stagnant development of the private sector.


Successful population policy needs strong women

Thus, North Africa and the Middle East have developed to be the blue print for our third stop: sub-Saharan Africa. In a few years from now, the region south of the Saharan desert might show an equal potential for unrest as the countries of North Africa. For the time being, however, most African states are lagging behind, and they can only see any potential demographic bonus in the distance.


This region is among the poorest regions in the world. According to estimates by the World Bank, 41 percent of people in the countries south of the Sahara lived on less than two US dollars a day. Birth rates are at almost five children per woman. The population pyramid is missing the “belly” of those fit for work and the breadwinners. This impedes the establishment of wealth and economic growth.


The reasons for the children boom are complex. Two factors, however, appear to stand out in particular, and these make for a good opportunity to respond: The Guttmacher Institute determined in 2018 that 62 percent of all young women in Africa who would like to prevent pregnancy do not have access to modern contraception. Furthermore, a large number of children die due to the bad state of healthcare. However, when parents cannot be certain regarding the survival rates of their children, then this leads to more births given that properly functioning welfare systems are lacking. More often than not, children are the only “insurance”. Informational family planning, health care, and wider access to contraceptives are, therefore, lacking. After all, decreasing birth and mortality rates would take the region towards the kind of demographic bonus what could stimulate economic growth.


Demographers are seeing the same thing all around the world: The better educated the women the more independent they are when it comes to making decisions, and the fewer children they have. Successful population policy, especially in states with higher birth rates such as the sub-Saharan region, means education policy. Above all, it means this: A policy aimed at empowering women at all levels.


The gender aspect is becoming more and more of a factor here. The African agricultural sector is led by women. More than 90 percent of basic food and more than 30 percent of the fruit in the market are produced by women. Women account for 70 percent of the workforce in the agricultural sector. There are a number of reasons for this. Migrant labour is without a doubt a key factor. This is because it has become an important form of income that men have claimed for themselves. Women are disadvantaged in urban job markets. So they lead agricultural businesses. On average, however, they do not have the relevant rights. Due to long-held beliefs, men claim the “performance” skill for themselves. The authority to make decisions and access to land are limited for women, and their performance is not sufficiently valued by society. This is despite the fact that women especially have been shown to be a major force in the modernisation required in the agricultural sector and its changed products.


This is where policymakers can take action in a number of areas: More female agricultural advisors should be trained, and the “customary law”, relict from Colonial times needs to be addressed more specifically: In some areas, this is in contravention with the laws of the country, and it discriminates against women.


International Women's Day celebrations at the IDP camp (internal displaced persons) "Habile" in Koukou, Chad. Photo: Christoph Püschner/Diakonie Katastrophenhilfe.
International Women's Day celebrations at the IDP camp (internal displaced persons) "Habile" in Koukou, Chad. Photo: Christoph Püschner/Diakonie Katastrophenhilfe.


The set screws have to be turned today.

Other regions have already completed the processes that, for example, Africa is yet to begin. The penultimate stop of our tour is Western Europe: Being exposed to strong population growth and high infant fatality rates, the situation improved at the beginning of the 19th century with medical advances being made. Industrialisation was followed by better education which, in turn, helped promote economic growth and lead to social security being created. Finally, once wealth had been achieved, fertility rates dropped. This was because industrialisation and urbanisation brought with them higher levels of education among the general population, and this brought about social change. Peasant families with a lot of children were becoming less and less common. Having a lot of children became less and less necessary and even less desired. This is how Western Europe opened itself up for a demographic bonus, with dropping birth and fertility rates. Today’s Germany now has to face different demographic trends: According to the Federal Statistical Office, 3.41 million Germans were in need of care at the end of 2017. In 2030, this figure will be higher by one million, and this is while the population will shrink by 17 million people by 2060.


Our last stop: China is facing similar, yet more dramatic challenges than Germany. The demographic bonus will be up soon, with the dividend expiring in a few years’ time. The days in which vast numbers of young workers stimulated economic growth are over. A few years from now, the country that has instituted a one-child policy for more than three decades up until this day will be replaced by India as the most populous country in the world. Until then, it will adapt to forms of emotional loneliness: Besides the elderly, there will be children without siblings, men without wives. This is because many women choose to have an abortion if the child is a girl. Boys are deemed more valuable. The “fiscal time bomb” is a particular challenge for aging countries: With age, costs for health care rise, and state budgets are more strained. China especially is seeing the limits of state action. According to calculations by the US-based Brookings Institute, China will have to raise taxes for each person employed by 150 percent in the next 20 years to be able to look after its old people as well as it does today.


At the end of this tour d’horizon between bonus and dividend, one thing is certain: Failure is punished severely. It is not enough that demography, that has now woken up from its deep sleep, is now becoming a buzzword. The right changes need to be made today.


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