The Demography of Youth and Anger

Written on February 16, 2008 by Rolf Strom-Olsen in Arts & Cultures & Societies

Rolf Strom-Olsen


It has been almost a decade now since the University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt and John Donohue first published their findings that linked the dramatic fall in crime through the 1990s in the United States with the legalisation of abortion. This provocative thesis caused controversy when it first showed up. It garnered further attention when the showboating, er… rogue economist featured the argument in his highly successful (if awkwardly titled) 2005 work "Freakonomics," which included a number of jaw-dropping findings based on the application of economic analysis to thorny or obscure social issues (why, for example, do drug dealers live with their mothers?).

Levitt has made the full case linking abortion to crime in a more august (and peer-reviewed) forum: the Quarterly Journal of Economics (116:2 (2001) 379-420) and his statistical analysis (generally supported by other studies) has  sparked a lively academic and popular debate. In essence, Levitt argues that those aborted pregnancies have a disproportionate effect on crime rates: mothers whose socio-economic profile would make them statistically more likely to raise criminals are the ones more likely to benefit from legalised abortion. In the US, where the question of reproductive rights is extremely – extremely – EXTREMELY –  politicised (more so even, I would venture, than in Portugal or Ireland), such an argument inevitably has attracted angry, emotional responses, with some lunatics motivated partisans suggesting this argument could be used to provide a moral and social plinth for abortion.

I heard echoes of this debate this week when I ran across this brief item in The Economist. As the article notes:

Alas, the consequences of the even higher [birth] rates of 20 years ago … is a large cohort of young men aged 15-24 who are now alive (in the past many would have died as infants), relatively healthy and educated (partly thanks to foreign aid), but jobless and thus pugnacious.

To make the  point as the Economist has may be insensitive (or racy and stylish, as improbably suggested here), but it seems highly accurate nonetheless. A burgeoning generation of young, educated and unemployed young men is a lethal cocktail for civil unrest.  Try this more palatable spin from Elizabeth Leahy, the author of the study behind the Economist’s story (reprinted here):

The problem is not that there are too many young people, but that there are too few opportunities and resources available to them….Young people are the most important asset a society has in looking to the future. When young people are educated, healthy, and employed, they are the ones who renew and revitalize a country’s economy and institutions.

That sounds better, or at least more politic, but why mince words? The real issue here is that rapid demographic change can provoke major social and economic upheaval, often in ways that are totally Picture_1 unexpected. This is demography in action, precipitated by the drastic reduction in child mortality over the last decades in the developing world. If we apply the logic of simple cause and effect, does this trend suggest infant mortality should not be reduced until greater economic opportunity and prosperity can be safely predicted? It is asking too much dispassion of social policy to make that choice. What then of the panacea of greater economic opportunity for an exploding population bulge? Sadly, the recipe that shows the path to feasible economic growth at a pace that can accommodate such radical population change has yet to be discovered. So Elizabeth Leahy’s analysis may sound better, but it is so untethered from reality, that it is just so much pablum. And who is helped by that?

The answer, for young Gazans and young Kenyans and others like them, should be the same as it was for young Europeans three generations ago: emigration. The West’s birthrate is falling dramatically, so potential emigrants from such places should have a natural place to go. Unfortunately, the consequences of population change have a chilling impact beyond the immediate boundaries of those regions affected. Who in the West, watching the violence endemic to the Gaza strip, is roused to support opening the doors to this population? As Kenya falls into greater sectarian violence, they too will suffer from the same bad press. No society will eagerly embrace importing the social problems of another, and too often that is how immigration policy choices are presented. Because of the insuperable challenges concerning immigration that exist within Western democratic societies, it is not helpful to avoid posing tough questions. The Economist has it right, as did Levitt and Donohue in their earlier analysis of falling crime patterns. If we shy away from a dispassionate confrontation of the evidence, who is actually served?


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