The “Youth Bulge”:

In an article analyzing the 9/11 terrorist actions, Newsweek asks, “Why do they hate us?” Under the heading “The Politics of Rage,” the article comments on possible reasons for terrorism in the Arab world. It reads, “Arab societies are going through a massive youth bulge, with more than half of most countries’ populations under the age of 25…A huge influx of restless young men in any country is bad news. When accompanied by even small economic and social change, it usually produces a new politics of protest. In the past, societies in these circumstances have fallen prey to a search for revolutionary solutions.”

This sentiment, linking young Arab men in the global South with political upheaval and potential violence, echoes through many articles in the popular press.

The “Culture Briefs” section of The Washington Times picked up this quote from Hassan Fattah, author of The Middle East Baby Boom: “The sheer number of these Arab Boomers will give them more influence over the course of their nations than any other generation before them. To be sure, there’s plenty of reason to be concerned with any youth bulge. Indeed, the one generalization demographers are willing to make is that youth bulges disrupt the social equilibrium, invariably inviting turmoil and drastic change.”


The correlation that the media makes between young men and violent uprisings popularizes the “youth bulge” concept. This concept identifies young men as a historically volatile population. It explores the idea that the presence of more than twenty percent of young people in the population signals the possibility of political rebellion and unrest. The concept specifically equates large percentages of young men with an increased possibility of violence, particularly in the global South where analysts argue that governments may not have the capacity to support them.

Historically, the United States has viewed youth in the South as a threat to national security. After World War II, when overall perceptions about population growth were beginning to shift, U.S. military analysts and academics began to define the growing number of youth in the South as a problem. This fear of youth in the South coincided with growing U.S. interest in access to raw materials to supply industry.

For the U.S., this access depended on good relationships with Southern governments. However, at the time anti-colonial nationalism was on the rise, and U.S. interests were threatened by this trend. Betsy Hartmann, author of Reproductive Rights and Wrongs, notes:

The success of the Chinese Revolution, Indian and Indonesian nonalignment, independence movements in Africa, economic nationalism in Latin America-all these contributed to growing U.S. fears of the Third World. Population growth, rather than centuries of colonial domination, was believed to fuel nationalist fires, especially given the increasing proportion of youth.

Though political trends have shifted since that time, U.S. military analysts have continued to characterize youth as a threat and have created “appropriate” defense policy in response. Personified as a discontented, rebellious teenage boy, almost always a person of color, the youth bulge is portrayed as an unpredictable, out-of-control force in the South with the potential to catalyze uncontainable conflicts that may spill over into neighboring countries and even other areas of the world, including the U.S.


On March 15, 2000, in his testimony before the House Armed Service Committee, General Anthony C. Zinni, then commander in chief of the United States Central Command, commented about the Arabian Gulf region:

Population growth is also increasing dramatically putting pressure on natural resources, specifically water, and economic systems. This has resulted in instability, especially in countries experiencing this “youth bulge.” Certain areas of this dynamic and volatile Central Region offer a fertile environment for extremists to recruit, train, and conduct terrorist operations. These extremists pose a significant and growing threat to U.S. personnel around the world and to their own people and governments as well.

The belief that the youth bulge represents a security threat is partially based on the idea that population pressures inevitably cause resource scarcities, which in turn force young people to compete for limited educational and employment opportunities. When governments fail to meet their needs, young people will supposedly react with violence.

In reality, a complex web of national and international political and economic forces determines the extent and availability of resources. In Egypt, for example, development problems are often framed in terms of population pressures, ignoring growing disparities in income and power between rich and poor and the role of U.S. aid in undermining basic food production, eroding public welfare institutions, and strengthening the hand of the military. In fact, no discussion of resource scarcity can be complete without addressing how swollen military budgets in many countries take much-needed funds away from health, education and job creation.

Resource scarcity arguments are often coupled with the assumption that governments in the global South are not sophisticated enough to accommodate growing populations of young people. John L. Helgerson, chairman of the U.S. National Intelligence Council, commented that “the inability of states to adequately integrate youth populations is likely to perpetuate the cycle of political instability, ethnic wars, revolutions, and anti-government activities that already affects many countries. And a large proportion of youth will be living in cities, where opportunities will be limited.”

Thus, youth are characterized as having the potential to send a nation into a state of chaos.

Given that the U.S. military defines the youth bulge as an explosive force that holds great power over nation states, the military feels it must be equipped to handle sudden unrest. The youth bulge’s supposed volatile nature serves as a rationale for U.S. defense build-up in areas where the youth bulge is defined as a problem, notably in the Middle East.

Anthony Cordesman, a senior fellow in strategic assessment at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, remarks that neither 9/11 or the “war on terror” changed the basic reasons for the U.S. military presence in the Middle East. He charges, “…we need to remember what our key strategic priorities are. The United States is ever more dependent on a globalized economy, and the global economy is becoming steadily more dependent on Middle Eastern energy exports.”

Cordesman contends that the U.S., as the primary global power, needs to fulfill its responsibility to “protect” Middle Eastern energy exports and shield the global economy from any threats, including the threat of the youth bulge.

He believes that as the population of young men and women increases, “hyperurbanization and population mobility are destroying traditional social safety nets, while modern media publicize the region’s weakness and at the same time present images of material wealth that most citizens can never obtain. The result is to drive many into mosques, and some toward an Islamic extremism that is at least as opposed to modernization and secular government as it is anti-Western.”

Military and academic analysts have long linked the youth bulge with Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism. In Clash of the Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, Samuel Huntington argues, “The Islamic challenge is manifest in the pervasive cultural, social, and political resurgence of Islam in the Muslim world and the accompanying rejection of Western values and institutions.”

He warns that the expansion of the youth cohort in Muslim countries provides “recruits for fundamentalism, terrorism, insurgency and migration.” Underlying Huntington’s and Cordesman’s anxiety about the youth bulge in the Middle East are concerns about maintaining U.S. control over oil. Given the current political climate, the youth bulge will continue to feature highly as a national security threat, because of its potential to disrupt U.S. access to oil.


The angst surrounding the youth bulge thus contains underlying assumptions about race and religion. In addition to anti-Muslim prejudices, the youth bulge concept builds from gender stereotypes. It contends that men, particularly young men, are prone to violence. It preys on fears that when young men face challenges like gaining employment, political power and wealth, they will form alliances and find outlets for their essentially violent natures.

Christian Mesquida and Neil Weiner, researchers at York University, go so far as to suggest this violence is biologically determined. Weiner contends that, “human (especially young male) tendencies to engage in coalitional aggression must be an advantageous trait; if not, natural selection would have ensured the trait’s extinction by now.”

The gendered notion of the “youth bulge” has a parallel in the U.S. policy response to the concept of the “teenage superpredators:” young, black men from urban centers who will supposedly rise up in an unstoppable tide of crime. Superpredator theories have led to an increase in domestic militarism, resulting in increased zero-tolerance policies at schools and ever more punitive legislation for juvenile offenders, particularly young men of color.


Not all analysts position the youth bulge as a threat. Some argue for looking at the youth bulge and YOUTH uprisings without assuming a violent outcome. Jennifer S. Holmes, author of Terrorism and Democratic Stability, remarks, “I would describe demography as a challenge that the state needs to meet, whether it’s developing countries with a youth bulge or developed countries with a graying population. It is not going to predetermine the outcome.”

Henrik Urdal of Oslo’s International Peace Research Institute argues that whether or not youth bulges cause political instability depends on other variables, such as intermediary regimes and economic recession.

Further, in Student Resistance, Mark Edelman Boren writes, “Empowered through collective action, unruly students can challenge their institutions, societies, and governments; they can be tremendous catalysts for change.” Although Boren does not address the youth bulge concept directly, his work catalogues how collective action by young people has resulted in meaningful social change movements, some of which were non-violent.

Unfortunately, most commentary about the youth bulge condemns young men as potential terrorists who are swayed by dogma and rhetoric to form collective reigns of terror. Without recognition that this generation will contribute positively to the advances of society and development, discussions of this generation strip it of self-respect, underestimate its potential, and leave it devalued. The alarmist youth bulge concept is clearly in the interests of those who advance it and not in the interest of supporting the next generation of youth. The question is not “why do they hate us?” but instead, “why do we hate them?”

Anne Hendrixson is a freelance writer and activist. She is a member of the Committee on Women, Population, and the Environment.

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