HomeOpinionYouth bulge: Gift or ticking time-bomb

Youth bulge: Gift or ticking time-bomb

Makomborero Muzenda
Writer & analyst

Your youth is meant to be the best time of your life. It is meant to be a time of self-discovery, where you can explore and try new experiences without fear of failure or responsibilities.

Those precious years — between adolescence and early 30s — should be the period where you lay the foundations for the rest of your career, health and personal life and have fun while doing it.

This period of youth is also crucial for a country’s development and future. The youth represent the national working population. They are current and future political, business and social leaders, whose participation in development policies and future planning can catapult a country into an economic, political and cultural force. Much has been made of Africa’s youth population, which keeps growing year after year. According to a 2020 report produced by the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, approximately 60% of Africa’s population is under the age of 25, making the continent’s population the youngest in the world by average.

As the report further states, “By 2100, Africa’s youth will be equivalent to twice Europe’s entire population and almost one half of the world’s youth will be from Africa.”

Ten of the youngest countries in the world are all African, with Niger topping the list having an average age of 15,2 years.

This is the youth bulge, a demographic phenomenon where infant mortality rates fall but fertility rates remain high. In short, a youth bulge occurs when there is a significant increase in the number of people aged between 16 and 30 in proportion to the rest of the population. Africa as a whole currently has a youth bulge, with the average African aged at 20.

Having such a large population of young people can be a demographic gift. After all, a large youth population also means a large labour force. Youth participation in political processes also encourages democracy and the protection of institutions, as seen by the recent elections in Zambia.

Young people also contribute to the economy with their purchasing power: buying goods, paying for services such as Internet and health care, investments and disposable income all contribute to economic growth. The more the youth spend, the more money goes into industries. Institutions such as the African Development Bank and the African Union have highlighted the significance of Africa’s youth to the realisation of initiatives such as Agenda 2063, and the future of the continent’s growth and development.

Zooming in, Zimbabwe in particular also has a youth bulge. Dr Cyprian Muchemwa is a lecturer at Bindura University of Science Education’s department of peace and governance.

His research is on peace building and post-conflict reconstruction in Africa from the perspective of the youth. Muchemwa’s particular area of research is southern Africa, and he has some insights on the position of Zimbabwe’s youth population in society. A youth bulge can be a demographic gift — or it can be a demographic bomb – depending on how governments respond to the problems this population faces. The situation is dire.

“It (the situation) is really bad. We have high levels of poverty. One of the results of this is youth trying to numb the pain of poverty through drugs,” says Muchemwa. High rates of poverty, coupled with high unemployment rates, a growing drug problem, and a skills deficit present formidable hurdles for Zimbabweans aged between 15 and 30.

Many have turned to the informal sector for employment and to earn an income, but its greatest advantage — its lack of structure and regulation — is also its greatest weakness. The sector lacks job security and stability, and has been hard hit by the Covid-19 pandemic and ensuing restrictions. According to Muchemwa, this leads to desperation, depression, and for those who can, a one-way ticket out of the country.

Politically and socially, the situation is not much better. “Young people feel left out,” says Muchemwa, describing how political structures and entities do not reflect Zimbabwe’s significant youth population. Older generations dominate politics: the average of female Members of Parliament is 56,19, and the average male Member of Parliament is approximately 52,7 years old*.

Given that the United Nations Population Division estimates Zimbabwe’s population average to be 18,7 years, the 30-year gap shows a lack of representation of young Zimbabweans in the country’s corridors of power. They are not as active in political processes such as voting than older generations, whether due to apathy or lack of awareness.

“They (the youth) are at the periphery of decision making”, explains Muchemwa.

Why is this a problem? If the youth population, a large demographic, is not involved in political processes or economic activity, what does it mean for a country, region and continent?

As Muchemwa argues, a failure to fully address the concerns of the youth and actively involve them in development can lead to trouble and chaos: “Can you imagine what will happen five or 10 years from now if the economy doesn’t improve? I shudder to think what will happen.”

He cites the situation in Mozambique, specifically the Cabo Delgado region, as an example of how a youth bulge can turn into a negative situation without proper planning. Mozambique also has a large youth population, with approximately 43% of the population under the age of 14. Cabo Delgado is the least developed province in Mozambique, with its youth being the least educated and least skilled in the country.

“If you look at the violence happening in Cabo Delgado, most of the people participating are young men,” explains Muchemwa.

High levels of poverty and inequality, and frustration with what was viewed as a corrupt and out-of-touch political system influenced the radicalisation of militants in the region.

The recent protests in South Africa were also influenced by growing youth unemployment, inflation and inequality. There is arguably a link between a failure to address the needs and concerns of a large youth population and an increase in violence and instability.

“When you look at how civil wars start, it’s with small acts of violence that grow into something bigger. Look at Boko Haram. Look at the violence that happened in Kwekwe and Chitungwiza. It (civil war) can happen here too,” says Muchemwa.

Despite this grim picture, it is not all gloom and doom for Zimbabwe. At least, it does not have to be. As Muchemwa explains: “A youth bulge is not bad. It can be manipulated into economic development. After all, young people are a critical economic resource.”

So what must be done to invest in, protect and include this critical resource? Zimbabwe does have some frameworks and policies focused on youth empowerment and inclusion. There has been a youth ministry in some shape or form since Independence in 1980.

We ratified the African Union Youth Charter in 2009. The National Youth Policy seeks to “fully develop youth’s mental, moral, social, economic, political, cultural, spiritual and physical potential in order to improve their quality of life.”

What’s left to be done now is proper implementation of these frameworks and policies.

Most importantly, there needs to be intentional and genuine engagement with the youth in fixing the economy. As the old saying goes, the youth are the leaders of tomorrow.

In order to ensure a good, stable, prosperous tomorrow, there needs to be investment in the youth today.

Muzenda is an analyst. This weekly column New Horizon is published in the Zimbabwe Independent and coordinated by Lovemore Kadenge, an independent consultant, past president of the Zimbabwe Economics Society and past-president of the Institute of Chartered Secretaries & Administrators in Zimbabwe. — kadenge.zes@gmail.com or mobile: +263 772 382 852.

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