19 May 2012

Are young revolutionaries bound to fail?

Demographer Richard Cincotta of the Stimson Center in Washington DC has compiled some intriguing facts about revolution and the age of populations. His analysis not only enables him to predict if a revolution will occur in a particular country but whether or not a revolution will transition into a democracy.

Studying oppressive autocracies around the world in the period 1972 to 1989, he found that if their median population age was over 35, they were unlikely to be subject to revolution at all. Of those that experienced revolutions when their median age was between 30 and 35, all are still democracies today. Ninety per cent of those with a median age less than 25 ultimately reverted back to oppressive regimes. With median ages between 25 and 30, they could go either way.

So what does this mean for the Arab Spring countries? Well, Tunisia, with a median age of 30, is the most likely to transition to a permanent democracy. With median ages of 25 and 26 respectively, Egypt and Libya have a chance, but for Syria and Yemen, at 21 and 17, the odds are very poor indeed.

As for the country we are most invested in—Afghanistan—with a median age of 18, a permanent transition to democracy may be a long time coming.

Although age appears to be a useful indicator for stable transitions, it is not likely a cause. That is more likely reflected by the maturity of a country. More mature, complex societies—urbanized, high income, greater gender equality, better educated, etc.—are more equipped for democracy and also have lower birth rates and therefore older populations.

Older generations often say that youth is wasted on the young. In the case of revolution, it would seem to bear a kernel of truth.

1 comment:

  1. Crane Brinton's classic, "The Anatomy of Revolution", maintains that Revolution isn't age-driven but class-driven. Brinton analyzed the great revolutions - British, American, French, Russian - and discovered a number of parallels. Revolutions, it seems, are usually effected by disillusioned or disgruntled middle class merchants, artisans and professionals. They possess the means and organizational skills to light the fuse. Once they've got success within their grasp, a follow-up group of radicals seeks to oust them. Think Mensheviks being tossed by Bolsheviks. That's where Revolutions can turn really bloody and incredibly nasty.

    Youth were certainly a factor in the Arab Spring but they were educated young people frustrated by lack of opportunity and infuriated by the nepotism that stood in their way of any hope of success. Yet they were but one force in a widely-based group that included Islamists, victims of state repression and those angered by food shortages and unaffordable prices.

    If these revolutions run true to form we've probably only seen the opening salvos with further unrest still to come. Making real sense of this, Bill, will be left to others long after you and I have joined the Choir Invisible.