Battle of the Youth Bulge

How certain large populations of idle young men will likely change the world… for the worse

“Between 1970 and 1999, 80% of civil conflicts occurred in countries where 60% of the population or more were under the age of thirty… Today there are sixty-seven counties with youth bulges, of which sixty of them are experiencing social unrest and violence.” – Council on Foreign Relations

A surge in youth population leads most nations in one of two directions: Economic boom or social bust. While much of the world is currently focused on the aging populations of powerhouse nations like the US and Japan, certain regions of the world are growing startlingly younger. Social scientists call these phenomena “youth bulges.” By necessity, they take time to play out. But even in these early stages, it’s easy to see what’s coming…and a lot of it is pretty unsettling.

Yemen has captured American attention just a few times in the last decade. The assailants of the USS Cole were from there, and the infamous “underwear bomber” – who was trained in Yemen – tried to spoil Christmas Day 2009. In both cases, we as a nation spent the proceeding weeks tripping over ourselves…searching for answers as to how this came to be, who to blame, and how to stop it from happening again.

But, as usual, few ask “why?” That’s a more stinging question, of course. One of the few easy answers is this: Yemen is overflowing with disaffected kids. An amazing 46% of the Yemeni population is under 16 years old. That’s the highest youth ratio for any nation in the world outside of Africa. By comparison, only 20% of Americans occupy this demographic.

Recipe for Disaster

If there’s a better model out there for youth bulges at risk, we can’t find it. Yemen has been plagued with civil war for most of the last century. 45% of the population lives in poverty. Social mobility is a rarity. Barley half the population can read. Life expectancy is relatively low (60 years old for men). Only 3% of the land is arable and most of the nation suffers a constant shortage of potable water.

What little land and water is available for agriculture is mostly used for growing khat – the same amphetamine-like narcotic that helped turn Americas’ brief occupation of Mogadishu into “Black Hawk Down.” The drug is hugely popular in Yemen, where as much as 90% of men chew it everyday. A headline of a recent TIME article gives the addiction credence – “Is Yemen Chewing Itself to Death?”

The icing on Yemen’s sheet cake of problems: The nation’s one great source of income – oil, which accounts for 75% of government revenue – will likely run dry by 2020. In other words, the country has less than ten years to completely reinvent its economy.

Yet despite it all, the Yemeni population has doubled since 1975 to 22 million, now the second most populous nation in the Arab peninsula. Today, the average woman in Yemen has 6.5 children.

Why the West Should Listen Up

Does Yemen’s “youth bulge” matter to the Western world? Ask the passengers of Northwest Airlines Flight 253, or seamen of the USS Cole, or all the travelers, soldiers and businesses that will be affected by subsequent policies.

Yemen’s porous borders, lack of police force, predominantly Muslim population and disaffected youth are ideal breading grounds for Islamic radicalism. Yemen was second only to Saudi Arabia in the number of soldiers sourced to fight the USSR in Afghanistan in the ’80s…the very group of soldiers that would one day form a group called “Al Qaeda.”

Any government or business that plans on sailing through the Red Sea should take notice. Other than sailing around Africa, there is simply no way to connect the Indian Ocean and Mediterranean Sea without brushing up against Yemen. Its narrow Mandab Strait is the only way into the Red Sea and Suez Canal. Over 3.3 million barrels of oil pass through this strait every day, roughly 7% of daily global tanker loads.

Worse yet, what can be said for Yemen is hardly dissimilar from many of its Middle Eastern neighbors. At least 40% of the populations of Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan and Oman are under 14 years old. In the whole Middle Eastern region, 65% of the population is under 30. Suffice to say many are struggling with plights themselves…food and water scarcity, peak oil, Jihadism, political instability, etc. The same goes for most of Africa, too – though few nations there wield the same kind of petrol-power or propensity for global terrorism as the Middle East.

“The ‘War on Terrorism’ promises to be expensive,” Bill Bonner and I observed in Financial Reckoning Day seven years ago, “simply because there are so many potential terrorists to fight. Westerners constitute a decreasing minority of the global population: In 1990, they amounted to 30% of humanity; in 1993 that number had dropped to 13% and by 2025, following current trends, the percentage will fall to 10%. At the same time, the Muslim world is growing younger and increasing in numbers.

“In fact, Muslims’ market share of the global population has increased dramatically throughout the twentieth century and will continue to do so until the proportion of Westerners to Muslims is inverse that of the 1900 ratio. By 1980, Muslims constituted 18% of the world’s population and, in 2000, more than 20%. By 2025, they are expected to account for 30% of world population.”

Thus, like the Protestant Reformation, the French Revolution, the Iranian Revolution or even the “free love” ’60s here in the US – a very large, disaffected population in the Middle East is coming of age. If social and political conditions there remain the same – and we see little reason why they wouldn’t – the worst from the region is likely yet to come. And if the social and political scene there deteriorates – with the help of peak oil, religious wars and constant Western intervention – darker times are practically guaranteed.


Addison Wiggin
for The Daily Reckoning