The young and the restless: a critique of security threat analysis

In our second article exploring the ramifications of youthful populations for society, MSC Security Studies student Rosemary Schwitzer explains the damaging effects of the ‘youth bulge’ theory, used to predict social unrest around the world.



A cover from Newsweek in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001. Photograph of original © Hector Sanchez/Creative Commons license

In October 2001, Newsweek magazine published a report entitled ‘The Politics of Rage: Why Do They Hate Us?’, calling for analysis of the reasons behind 9/11. Accompanying this article was the image of a young Arab boy grasping a rifle, in addition to others showing Arab youth involved in anti-American protest and violence. Within the article, it was stated that ‘disoriented young [Arab] men’, searching for simplicity within the mix of tradition and modernity of their daily lives, are naturally drawn to fundamentalism.

Whilst this may appear a perfectly innocent article suggesting motives for the terror attacks, it is in reality a dangerous contribution to an already thriving collection of discourses defining youth in certain regions of the world, especially young men, as security threats. Its usage of dichotomising terms such as ‘them’, ‘we’ and ‘us’ works to divide the world into two parts – one considered threatening and the other stable – ignoring the complex reality of our ever more interconnected world. Its alarmist nature serves to incite concern amongst populations in the ‘developed’ world that the ‘dangerous’, ‘undeveloped’ portion will spill over and create widespread insecurity.

Today, it is commonly assumed that threats to regional and global stability are most likely to materialise in countries in which young people form a significant proportion of the population. First developed as a predictive tool by the CIA in 1985, this ‘youth bulge’ theory is still regularly drawn on. The youth bulge is more common in the Global South, which has led to demographic and racial scaremongering becoming intertwined to form constructed ‘facts’ of who poses a risk. This amalgamation is clearly evident in early accounts on the ‘dangers’ that youth bulges bring, which were often linked to concerns about overpopulation and resource scarcity. In 1994, American journalist Robert Kaplan famously referred in The Atlantic magazine to large populations of young men in regions of the Global South as ‘loose molecules in a very unstable social fluid, a fluid…clearly on the verge of igniting’. Since 9/11, however, these anxieties have been appropriated to serve a different political purpose as part of the War on Terror.

DDR projects for youth in El Geneina

Harnessing the economic potential of young people, rather than adopting repressive measures, is key in reducing violence and encouraging global development. © UNAMID/Creative Commons license

Politicians, military and security personnel, as well as the media, have all contributed to this homogenising and assumptive geopolitical discourse surrounding terrorism. In such portrayals, terrorists are depicted as young, coloured, Muslim men. Dangerously, when such subjectivities are reproduced in political speech and the media, they are often accepted as truth. The primary reason behind support of this theory is that there has been widespread evidence that the incidence of civil conflict and other forms of violence correlate with high youth populations. However, without acknowledging the intervening variables which fuel this relationship, such as a lack of employment opportunities, certain youth groups will continue to be scapegoated. Additionally, there are many countries with high youth populations that escape violence, displaying that it is the ability to manage such demographics, rather than their mere existence, that fuels violence.

Whilst scapegoating certain racial and demographic groups is troubling in itself, it is the poor policy practices this promotes that are truly disturbing. The theory is said to support aggressive American foreign policy, such as controversial population control programmes, in addition to allowing certain governments across the Global South to adopt repressive rather than supportive targeted measures. The usage of stigmatising language against certain youth, such as American Muslims and Arabs, contributes to their alienation and defines them as threats based on the speaker’s perspective, which does not represent objective reality but is tarnished with subjective, often racialised ideas of the ‘Other’.

Positively, however, there is a growing critical literature seeking to investigate the relationship between youth and violence more deeply. Studies such as the World Bank’s examination into the relationship between youth bulges and genocidal violence in Rwanda display the value of adopting participatory methods. Their findings – that Rwandan men largely felt constrained by a lack of employment, and were attracted to promises of material gain offered by genocide instigators, rather than being inherent threats to societal stability in the years prior to the genocide – suggest that policies based on empirical evidence that take into account youth perspectives, rather than relying on constructed metaphors, are necessary to prevent horrors like that of 1994 from occurring again.

The youth bulge theory must thus be further investigated in order to better understand the contextual specificities of the youth-violence relationship. Through engaging youth, greater understanding can be gained of the particular problems that they face, which will enable more sensitive policy to be developed that may inhibit violence. The theory may be a useful general predictive tool, but it should not be harnessed as a way to stigmatise and repress large youth populations that are far from homogenous.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.


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