THE YOUTH BULGE: As incubator of extremism

THE YOUTH BULGE: As Incubator of Extremism

The Youth Bulge Theory is a concept that identifies young men or women as a historically volatile and ever increasing population. It explores the idea that the presence of more than 20% of young people raises the potential for rebellion and unrest. The concept specifically equates a large percentages of young men with an increased possibility of violence, particularly in the global South where youths often account for 60% of the population.[1]

The theory contends that societies with rapidly growing young populations often end up with rampant unemployment and large pools of disaffected youths who are more susceptible to recruitment into rebel or terrorist groups. Countries with weak political institutions are most vulnerable to youth-bulge-related violence and social unrest.[2]


The term was coined by Gunnar Heinsohn, a German social scientist, sometime in the 1990s. However, this theory gained popularity with the work of Gary Fuller and Jack Goldstone, American political scientists.[3]

A study by Population Action International (PAI), a Washington-based private advocacy group, suggests a strong correlation between countries prone to civil conflicts and those with burgeoning youth populations.


In a recent cross-national time-series study of the period 1950-2000, it was found that the presence of youth bulges increases the risk of conflict outbreak significantly. The statistical relationship holds even when controlling for a number of other factors such as level of development, democracy, and conflict history, and are also robust to a variety of specifications (for detailed results see Urdal, 2006). For every percentage point increase in the youth population (relative to the adult population), the risk of conflict increases by more than 4 per cent. When youth make up more than 35 per cent of the adult population, which they do in many developing countries, the risk of armed conflict would be 150 per cent higher than in countries with an age structure similar to most developed countries. In 2000, 15 to 24 yearolds made up 17 per cent or less of the total adult population in almost all developed countries, the median being 15 per cent. In the same year, 44 developing countries experienced youth bulges of 35 per cent or above.[4]

Between 1970 and 1999, 80 percent of civil conflicts occurred in countries where 60 percent of the population or more were under the age of thirty, according to the PAI report. Today there are sixty-seven counties with youth bulges, of which sixty of them are experiencing social unrest and violence. Demographers are quick to stress that youth bulges do not solely explain these civil conflicts—corruption, ethno-religious tensions, poverty, and poor political institutions also play contributing roles—but nor do they rule out as coincidence the predilection toward social unrest among states with large youth populations.[5]

While the relationship between age structure and instability is not one of simple cause and effect, the pattern is consistent. There is no single cause of conflict, and precipitating incidents are built on a constellation of deeper issues, of which age structure can be a part.[6]

The United Nations predict that some 138 countries will have growing “youth bulge”; its calamitous consequence is that youth unemployment will skyrocket to record levels with the highest rate in the Middle East and North Africa. The UN findings further reveal that at least 60 million people aged 15–20 will not be able to find work and twice as many, about 130M, cannot lift their families out of poverty. It will not take a prophet to predict that countries that cannot give decent life to their young people will serve as incubators of extremism that may end up in terrorism.[7]

The song written by Mac Davis and popularized by Elvis Presley captures this theory in a beautiful song, In the Ghetto.

In the Ghetto
Mac Davis

As the snow flies
On a cold and gray Chicago mornin'
A poor little baby child is born
In the ghetto
And his mama cries
'Cause if there's one thing that she don't need
It's another hungry mouth to feed
In the ghetto
People, don't you understand
The child needs a helping hand
Or he'll grow to be an angry young man some day
Take a look at you and me,
Are we too blind to see,
Do we simply turn our heads
And look the other way
Well the world turns
And a hungry little boy with a runny nose
Plays in the street as the cold wind blows
In the ghetto
And his hunger burns
So he starts to roam the streets at night
And he learns how to steal
And he learns how to fight
In the ghetto
Then one night in desperation
A young man breaks away
He buys a gun, steals a car,
Tries to run, but he don't get far
And his mama cries
As a crowd gathers 'round an angry young man
Face down in the street with a gun in his hand
In the ghetto
As her young man dies,
On a cold and grey Chicago mornin',
Another little baby child is born
In the ghetto
And his mama cries
In the ghetto
In the ghetto






[1] (Anne Hendrixson, The “Youth Bulge”: Defining the Next Generation of Young Men as a Threat to the Future. Hampshire College No. 19 ~ Winter 2003. Available at Last accessed, March 7, 2017).

 [2] Beehner, The Effects of ‘Youth Bulge’ on Civil Conflicts, April 27, 2007. Available at:, last accessed March 3, 2017.

 [3] Ibid.

 [4] Urdal, H, “A Clash of Generations? Youth Bulges and Political Violence.” Harvard University and Peace Research Institute Oslo, Expert Paper No. 2012/1. Last accessed, March 5, 2017.

 [5] Beehner, 2007

[6] Leahy, E, R Engelman, C G Vogel, S Haddock and T Preston. 2007. The Shape of Things to Come: Why Age Structure Matters to a Safer, More Equitable World. Washington, DC: Population Action International. Available at, Last accessed, March 4, 2017.

 [7] Justice R. Puno, The Old Struggle for Human Rights, New Problems Posed by Security. KASAMA Vol. 21 No. 3 / July-August-September 2007 / Solidarity Philippines Australia Network. Available at Last accessed, March 5, 2017.


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