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September Book Club Review

Each month, the CCI team selects a new book to read and discuss together. Our book club selections cover a wide range of topics that are relevant to charter cities, but they are most often related to development, urban issues, and governance. In this ongoing series, reviewers will offer summaries of the books we’ve read and share some of the highlights from our discussions.
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Book Review

Youthquake by Edward Paice

The job of a demographer is not easy, particularly for those in the business of global population projections. For one, population, fertility, mortality, and migration data – the main variables used in projection estimates – are often incomplete, inaccurate, or outdated. Then, even when high-quality data is readily available, the empirical methods, models, and assumptions demographers use to generate projections can be a source of controversy. Consequently, if the resultant population estimate is off by, say, a few million, demographers are subject to ready denigration by expert observers. However, on occasions when demographic research enters the public eye, nuance often gives way to sensation; findings are often misrepresented or used to stoke fear. The shadows of provocative books such as The Population Bomb and The Limits to Growth still loom large in popular demographic discourse.

In his meticulously researched book, Youthquake, Edward Paice meets these challenges head-on to make the compelling argument that African demography will transform the world over the coming decades. Paice recognizes the magnitude of his task as a demographer and diligently scrutinizes the “generalizations, received wisdom and wishful thinking” that often characterize popular demography, before dispassionately assessing the accuracy of current projections and surveying current population trends. He relies on a whirlwind of statistics to make a sound case that Africa is in the midst of a demographic upheaval, with a surging youth population that will ultimately determine the future of the continent.

However, beneath the pile of statistics, Paice makes another, more nuanced point: “demography is political,” (pg.7, italics added). Ultimately, objective facts can only tell us so much about what Africa’s massive demographic shift will mean for the continent. Institutions, power structures, and politics will determine how each individual country responds to meet the challenges and opportunities of the youthquake. Furthermore, politics will determine how the rest of the world, and particularly the West, engages with the growing youth population and responds to subsequent changes in the hierarchy and focus of global affairs. In this way, the implications of Africa’s demographic transition will be determined politically, both domestically and internationally.


Paice begins the book with an analysis of high-level population trends across the African continent. He uses a trove of statistics to support his argument that Africa is experiencing an unprecedented population surge, the most striking consequence of which is the continent’s “chronic youthfulness,” (pg. 23). It is this large and rapidly growing population of young people that constitutes Africa’s ‘youthquake.’ Three statistics in particular reflect the enormity of this demographic trend: (1) by 2030, there will be about the same number of African primary-school children as the combined populations of Germany, France, the UK, and Spain; (2) by 2050, about 40% of children worldwide each year will be African; and (3) by 2100, half of the world’s under-18s will be African (pg. 24).

Paice then turns to discuss the history of international discourse around population growth in the developing world. He contrasts the rhetoric employed by popular African leaders with the doomerism promulgated by most Western narratives, particularly during the 1970s and 1980s. For example, Paice explains how the president of Uganda, President Museveni, framed the country’s rapid population growth: “For Museveni, this was a ‘miracle,’ the result of ‘security of life and property and better healthcare’ provided by the National Resistance Movement (NRM) government,” (pg. 33). Cheikh Anta Diop, a Senegalese polymath, similarly argued in the 1970s that Africa suffered from underpopulation, as opposed to overpopulation.

Meanwhile, doom-mongering and a new “anti-population-growth crusade” proliferated across the West, with Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb in the vanguard, subsequently leading to “human rights abuses around the world,” (pg. 42). Efforts to curb population growth became “instruments of control” wielded in the name of environmental protection (pg. 48). Indeed, the outdated argument that the population will surpass the Earth’s ‘human carrying capacity’ – a newer iteration of the old Malthusian Dilemma – has proven to be sticky, even today.

As Paice mentions in the book, these arguments fail to recognize that “humans are the ultimate resource,” (pg.69). Human innovation and new technologies can help propel sustainable growth, which provides improved standards of living for a greater number of people, while also easing the environmental impact of human activity. Growth and sustainability need not be in contest with one another. In fact, they must be symbiotic. This fact came to be more widely accepted in the 1990s, when the ‘population explosion’ failed to come to fruition.

The tide of the population debate also took a decided turn in 1994 at the International Conference of Population and Development in Cairo. At the conference, recognition that notions of ‘population control’ measures were inherently coercive led to broader acceptance of a new rights-based approach to development, which implied that “population growth would take care of itself if women were empowered through education, property rights, equal access to financial services and the workplace and greater financial representation,” (pg. 78). With this, the focus shifted from explicit targeting of population growth to development, which, it was argued, would subsequently precipitate demographic transition.

In Chapters 5-7, Paice discusses more general theories about the stages of demographic transition and the calculation of population projections. Paice then applies these theories to an in-depth demographic analysis of Africa and the factors that will most likely affect the continent’s population trajectory over the coming decades. Paice revisits the UNPD’s population projections for Africa, diving deep into demographic indicators for the continent’s 12 high-growth, high-fertility countries, dubbed the “doubling dozen” because the population for each is expected to double by 2050. Readers may be forgiven for finding Paice’s numerically laden demographic analysis a bit dull at times; however, this may also be considered a virtue of the book, precisely because accounts of demographic change are often rhetorically charged.

In Chapters 11 and 12, Paice examines how women’s empowerment and gender relations impact fertility rates and discusses the implications for demographic transition in Africa’s ‘doubling dozen.’ Paice makes the crucial point that lack of respect for women’s rights has “adverse consequences for women’s health and well-being, and that of their children… [it also] prevents women from bearing the number of children they want, when they want to have them,” (pg. 181). He then goes on to explain that women’s education, particularly secondary education, is one of the most important factors influencing population growth in Africa. Nonetheless, he argues that “the outlook for the 12 high growth countries is not encouraging in this regard” largely due to the inadequacy of education systems, particularly for girls (pg. 192). Although Paice’s statistical analysis effectively supports his argument, a more contextualized discussion of women’s rights, empowerment, and education would be beneficial. 

Demography is Political

It is in the last four chapters that Paice’s more nuanced message, subtly threaded throughout the book, truly comes to light: demography is political. Early in the book, Paice explains how the framing of population growth discourse is fundamentally political by contrasting African and Western rhetoric around population issues. However, in the final chapters of the book, we also come to understand how politics will determine both what policy solutions are formulated to address the challenges posed by a large youth population and how effectively those policies are implemented.

For example, one of the major challenges facing high-population-growth countries is a shortage of employment opportunities. Without adequate job creation, African countries will likely be unable to realize the ‘demographic dividend,’ – a “transitory bonus” of economic growth resulting from a larger workforce, lower dependency rates, higher savings, and greater investment. As Paice points out, “African economies need to create 18 million additional [decent and high-productivity] jobs every year for 20 years from 2015 to 2035” to provide adequate employment for the growing population (pg. 234-235). However, estimates by the World Bank suggest that, based on current trajectories, African economies will only add 100 million jobs over the same period, a deficit of over 250 million jobs. Widespread un/underemployment not only dampens living standards, but it also has the potential to be politically and socially destabilizing.

 However, as Paice explains, “many governments lack a basic understanding of their labor markets and youth employment challenges,” (pg. 247). Job creation in many African countries will ultimately depend on implementing policies which “address both the supply and demand sides of labor markets.” Private sector development will be crucial; policies oriented towards business environment improvement thus have a very important role to play. The potential of the manufacturing sector also remains largely untapped, due in no small part to inadequate infrastructure, poorly functioning cities, low regional integration, and unfocused industrial policies. However, “transformative industrial policies…[can] build the necessary capabilities, which respond to national and regional needs, within the confines of global rules.” Industrialization will thus require creative policymaking and pragmatic, determined implementation on the part of African governments, if it is to propel countries toward the realization of the demographic dividend.

Nonetheless, corruption, low accountability, and a “lack of respect for diversity” in many African governments have constrained the effective formulation and implementation of necessary policies (pg. 286). Ultimately, “‘better’ politics, leading to better ‘governance’ or ‘development’ and opportunity” is vital to harnessing the full potential of the continent’s demographic upheaval (pg. 293). Paice succinctly makes this crucial point, which is worth repeating in its entirety:

“What population growth will mean country by country rests ultimately on politics and the political settlements the current generations of young Africans can secure by diverse means. The outcomes of their efforts are of immense importance first and foremost to themselves, but also to the future of a continent that, not least on account of its demography, is moving inexorably towards a position at the center of global affairs. This fact needs to be clearly understood by non-Africans and responded to with more than crisis narratives,” (pg. 285).

In other words, politics, institutions, and formal and informal power structures will determine how the youthquake impacts each country, the African continent, and society as a whole.

Ultimately, the only world in which population growth doomerism and neo-Malthusian arguments may hold any water is a world in which our formal and informal institutions constrain human collaboration and innovation. In this way, the Malthusian Dilemma is itself an inherently political problem, rather than an issue caused by population growth alone. Our planet and the growing number of people who call it home cannot afford for our institutions to plunge us into a reality in which Malthus’ catastrophe is even plausible.

In this way, we must remember that demography isn’t just about high-level population statistics; it’s about the people, the politics, and the future we collectively build. Paice reminds us of this important fact in Youthquake. His well-supported arguments shed light on the need for informed policies and strong institutions to address the challenges and harness the benefits of Africa’s surging youth population. As such, Paice’s book is a timely and essential contribution to the discussion, challenging conventional wisdom and offering a nuanced perspective on African demography.

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