The world's population has reached 'peak youth'. This should be a wake-up call to world leaders

If we mistake young people for a “demographic dividend to cash in on”, then we will crash when that commodity runs out

Perry Maddo
Thursday 30 July 2015 10:55
Students at Sheffield Hallam University
Students at Sheffield Hallam University

The UN’s latest global population statistics were dumped online this week in the form of a huge, impenetrable spreadsheet. What the complex figures obscure is a landmark that has huge consequences for the way we all live: we are about to pass the point where more people on the planet will be above 30 years of age than younger. We have reached ‘peak youth’.

The total number of young people in the world is starting to plateau. Today, we have the largest global youth population in history, and this mass will remain for several decades before beginning to shrink later this century.

This will happen within the lifetimes of many alive today. Asia’s vast youth population, on which much of the past century’s economic progress has depended, is already beginning to shrink. By 2050 one in three young people in the world will be African.

With world leaders having set themselves a deadline of agreeing historic goals on poverty, inequality and climate change by the end of this year, this simple fact has huge ramifications.

Secretary of State for International Development Justine Greening has already posed an important question on the world stage: what happens when 600 million young people, mostly in Africa and Asia, enter a job market with little work available for them to do?

For decades, both richer and poorer nations have relied on ever-growing young populations to fill their workforces and to expand their tax bases, but this has led to complacency over the waste of their potential - young people still make up 41% of the world’s unemployed.

Our notion of youth, too, is changing. Even these statistics are based on youth as 15 to 24 years old, but this definition is changing. The transition to adulthood is being stretched in both developing and more developed countries, as any young person in the UK (or their parents) well knows.

The power of youth is that they are neither dependent children nor fully independent adults. Young people are a vital group facing huge personal challenges, challenges on which society collectively succeeds or fails. Youth is not an age bracket, it is the passing from dependency to independence. It is a transition full of potential.

Much like a mid-life crisis for the world, this coming peak only needs to be depressing if we judge it by how we have used (or wasted) our youth so far. If we mistake young people for a “demographic dividend to cash in on”, then we will crash when that commodity runs out.

If there’s one thing the pessimists have right, it is that we don’t have all century to figure this out. We probably have two more generations before the peak begins to subside: the millennials, who have now left childhood, and the generation behind them who are, thankfully, yet to be branded. These children and young people, the start of Peak Youth and the last to make up the majority of the world population, will be the most affected by persistent extreme poverty, rising inequality and catastrophic climate change.

This generation will be the one to tackle these problems or to live through the consequences, and if approaching peak youth is the wake up call to the world to let them lead the way, it could not have come at a better time.

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