Forget the ‘ticking time bomb’: Why Africa should invest in its demographic dividend

By Rachel Brock, Special Contributor for Human Rights and Development Issues

Africa’s population is growing. Quickly. The World Economic Forum estimates that by 2034 there will be over 1.1 billion working-age Africans.[1] By 2050, 70 percent of the global labor force will be African.[2] Furthermore, young people between the ages of 15 and 25 represent more than 60 percent of the continent’s total population and account for 45 percent of the total labor force.

Moving beyond percentage targets, policy objectives, and catchy international institution statements: the African population is growing while other populations are not. World population growth has generally either plateaued or declined below a replacement rate level of growth. As the world population ages and retires, over 11 million African youth enter the labor market each year.

Unfortunately, Africa’s high population growth rate does not translate perfectly into economic growth. Youth also account for 60 percent of all unemployed in Africa.[3] According to a 2014 report by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), more than 40 percent of sub-Saharan African youth who are employed are unpaid. Many more are subjected to underemployment. In fact, the World Bank predicts that the majority of youth will enter the informal sector or work within the family, thus limiting potential wage earnings.

What do these numbers tell us? While Africa is certainly growing, this growth does not have a certain outcome. African development discourse likes to debate whether Africa’s rapid population growth constitutes the desirable demographic (“youth”) dividend, or a much more ambivalent youth bulge. The United Nations defines a demographic dividend as “the economic growth that ensues when there are more working-age people (15 to 64) than the non-working people (14 and younger, and 65 and older).” Conversely, a youth bulge is characterized by “high youth unemployment and widespread protests—a recipe for political instability.”[4]

So, which one is it? Can Africa harness its youth potential to stimulate economic growth and drive development? Or does widespread youth unemployment, which hovers at about 20 percent, risk aggravating dissatisfaction and inciting societal unrest across the continent?

The risks associated with rapid population growth certainly present valid concerns. But this gives even more incentive for African policymakers to invest in their youth. The riskiest ventures promise the largest payoffs. Granting initial “seed funding” to youth promise high impact returns. The UN suggests that governments should enable youth entrepreneurship initiatives, encourage agriculture, promote technology, invest in education and vocational training, support gender equality, and include youth in policy formulation and implementation processes. And in this case, doing nothing at all risks more than imperfect youth investment initiatives.

Leaving the youth potential untapped wastes incredible talent and disempowers the burgeoning demographic. Improperly supporting the younger generation today constructs a future in which Africans are unable to guide their own development. African youth are the best positioned to innovate new technologies, improve agricultural systems, and to spur new waves of economic growth. Therefore, empowering youth will impact other key sectors, and magnify the impact factor of the initial investment.

Idle youth are often identified as targets for rebel and extremist groups, and many have turned to diasporic migrations to escape tedious conditions. Instead of blaming youth for these outcomes—international reactions to the migrant crisis and a global preoccupation with terrorism and radical movements sadly confirm this allegation—development actors should address the structural conditions that foster these situations.

Recent rhetoric has referred to the rapid population growth in Africa as a potential ‘ticking time bomb’.[5] This statement delegitimizes African youth and their states as autonomous actors in their future. The analogy further implies that growth in this region will follow an increasingly abbreviated timeframe, and will culminate in some sort of explosion: either Africa will harness its youth potential to propel itself in a self-sustained growth trajectory, or the youth bulge will burst and chaos will rein across the continent.

In short, this image of a ticking time bomb constrains the framing of African growth patterns, and potentially limits responses to shifting demographics. African youth have repeatedly proved that their ingenuity comes from their ability to reconceptualize problems, their audacity to use new approaches to create solutions, and their willingness to push the boundaries of current understanding. African youth are the drivers of development and carry the hopes of the continent on their shoulders. The least the world can do is to step off their toes and enable the youth to assume this massive, infinitely rewarding responsibility.

Rachel Brock is a junior at UPenn studying International Relations and French. She is the Deputy Online Editor for the SIR Journal.






[5] Referencing this article: