A harvest of bulging possibilities

On August 12, Internatinal Youth day, we will be reminded that young people have been at the forefront of the fight for social change. Young South Africans have fought against apartheid and colonialism, in the same way that youth across the continent have resisted exploitation and subjugation. For these reasons, as well as from a human rights perspective, youth development must be a central tenet of South Africas national development agenda.

But alongside these historical and political perspectives is the growing recognition of the demographic significance of young people. There have never been so many young people in the world. Young people – aged 12 to 24 – make up 1,5-billion of the global population of 6,5-billion. Of these, nearly 90% (1,3-billion) live in developing countries. Relatively, Africa has the largest share of children and youth.

The ‘youth bulge’
The World Development Report 2007 – Development and the Next Generation highlights the demographic dividend that results from larger-than-normal numbers of youth.

Through various public health interventions, beginning in the 1940s (better sanitation, antibiotics, et cetera), infant mortality began to decline. As a result of better child survival, as well as declining fertility, a “baby-boom generation” was created that gradually worked its way through the age structure of the population. To start with, the age structure was bottom-heavy – with many children and adolescents to support in terms of health and education. But as the “baby-boomers” got older, the bulge shifted to the middle years, or the working-age population.

With fewer children and elderly people to support at either end of the population pyramid, the “youth bulge” provided an unprecedented opportunity for dramatic economic and human development.

The “East Asian” economic miracle provides the most salient example of the benefits of the demographic dividend. In these countries, almost a third of the economic growth between 1960 and 1990 was attributed to investments made in youth development.

But Professor David Bloom and his colleagues from Harvard University, in a 2003 monograph on the topic, warn that a dividend is not automatically reaped from a surplus youth population. To enjoy the benefits, countries need to implement sound policies of family planning to drive down fertility to sustain the window of opportunity. They need to invest in public health, education and labour-market participation, as well as to encourage savings and be open to trade.

Demographic transition is advanced in developed countries and is most evident in Japan and Europe, where the bulge has moved into old age. There are few young and many old people. The pressing challenge of these countries is to ensure financial and healthcare support for citizens in their old age.

In contrast, the number of young people in many developing countries will peak in the next 10 to 20 years. Sub-Saharan Africa is the only part of the world that will experience a youth bulge in the next two to five decades. South Africa, specifically, will experience a peak in the youthful population in the next 10 years and will enjoy a long plateau of 20 to 30 years when the youth population will remain at a high level. But this is a time-limited opportunity. As this cohort of young people ages, the bulge moves into the ageing years and dependence on the state will increase.

Is South Africa ready to take advantage of the “youth bulge”?

We know that the current youth cohort in South Africa is the best educated, they are the healthiest sector of the population and our Constitution grants them agency and platforms to influence political processes and civic life.

Yet several multifaceted questions continue to challenge us. While access to schooling is expanding, how can we help more young people complete their education? Given that our youth are the best educated, how can we draw them into the economy and benefit from their talents? With expanded access to family planning, how can we enable young people to choose when and with whom they want to have children? When institutions and opportunities exist for young people to participate meaningfully in civil society, how can we help them get and stay involved? And what second chances can we offer the large cohort of youth who have stumbled along the way?

While young people and their families make critical decisions about key life transitions, public policies and institutions create or constrain their choices and, in the end, their outcomes.

Efforts to create a policy and institutional environment conducive to youth development in South Africa acknowledge the important role young people play in society and in shaping the future of the country.

But we have to find ways to optimise what young people do and what they become. We have to ask: What can South Africa, as a country, do differently in the policy and programme environment to enhance the opportunities young people have for development; how can research optimise the policy-programme nexus; and how can we enable young people to become the custodians of their own development?

Youth policy initiative
These are some of the questions that the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC), in partnership with representatives from the youth sector, key government departments and NGOs, are opening to debate in the Youth Policy Initiative.

The initiative, which was launched in April and will span the next 18 months, consists of six high-profile round-table policy dialogue meetings, supported by a public lecture and seminar series, the HSRC biannual conference and publication of research results and policy analyses.

Experts from the policy, programme and research environments will link up to highlight key challenges confronting young people, debate the nature of the challenges and their possible solutions and discuss multisectoral and integrated approaches to addressing them.

The initiative will make research on critical youth issues available to policymakers, facilitate debates on the best ways to address the challenges young people face and involve young people in the discussions through partnerships with youth organisations and the media.

Round tables will produce policy briefs that summarise the state of the science and offer policy and programmatic direction. Through various forms of engagement and dissemination, the initiative aims to stimulate creative and integrative thinking about youth development within the research, policy and programme implementation communities.

Round tables
Round-table topics reflect the challenges facing youth, issues of national priority and emerging threats. They are: youth policies and youth institutions; the demographic dividend; entry into and expansion of livelihood strategies; school repetition, drop out and discontinuation; teen pregnancy; and violence and violent crime.

Participation and the value of technology

The initiative provides opportunities for young people to participate in debates and advocate for their own development. Young people need channels that are appropriate and familiar to their generation to inform and influence decision-making. Recognising that young people – more than any other generation – have digital savvy, the initiative is using a number of innovative and technology-driven modes of participation and knowledge generation to engage young people.

Live webcasts of the round tables can be viewed at youth centres run by partner organisations, such as the National Youth Commission, Umsobomvu Youth Fund and loveLife. Podcasts can be downloaded off the HSRC website and young people can participate in a poll that features questions relevant to each of the round tables (www.hsrc.ac.za/ypi). Marketing company Instant Grass has been contracted to capture “youth speak” in the social circles of young people at the places where they hang out. Johncom Learning and its partners will poll youth opinions through SMS, radio and television talk shows and any other communication channels available to the initiative.

The Youth Policy Initiative is experimental and therefore dynamic. It represents the inaugural and flagship project of the newly formed policy analysis unit of the HSRC, in collaboration with the child, youth, family and social development research programme. Its principle aim is to inform policymakers and implementing agencies and to enable them to coordinate their efforts.

Much depends on the initiative’s ability to garner support from key constituencies, particularly capturing the interest and confidence of young people in this process. Indications from the first round table, held on May 23, are that both support and interest are high. But we depend on everyone to lobby and advocate for the outcomes of the initiative to influence policy and programme direction.

For more information on the Youth Policy Initiative, please contact Dr Temba Masilela, [email protected] (012 302 2416) or Professor Linda Richter, [email protected] (031 242 54 00)

Dr Saadhna Panday (PhD) is a research specialist with the child, youth, family and social development research programme and Professor Linda Richter (PhD) is executive director of the programme. Written on behalf of the Youth Policy Initiative

What is the youth bulge?
The youth bulge is defined as a high proportion of 15- to 29-year-olds relative to the adult population.

Historically, it is associated with a high risk of outbreak of civil conflict as the number of educated young people surges and outpaces job growth. Research has shown that countries where young adults make up more than 40% of the working-age population are nearly 2,5 times more likely to experience a new outbreak of armed civil conflict than countries with lower proportions of young adults.

But, more recently the youth bulge has been seen as a positive opportunity for developing countries to invest in their younger generations to spur economic growth.

The World Bank’s 2007 development report found that certain developing countries, including South Africa, were entering a “youth bulge”. It was crucial that governments in these countries mobilise the economic and political resources to empower this generation, the report noted.

In the developed world, the number of youth had reached a plateau as a result of lower fertility rates and the window of opportunity had closed for countries such as Japan, Italy, China and Chile.

But South Africa, specifically, would experience a peak in the youthful population in the next 10 years, when a large proportion of the population would fall into the working-age range and would have fewer children and elderly people to support. These conditions would last for 20 to 30 years.

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