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Africa’s youthful population: Risk or opportunity?

Lori S. Ashford

Population Reference Bureau

June 2007

SARPN acknowledges the Population Reference Bureau as a source of this document:
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Africa’s young people will be the driving force behind economic prosperity in future decades, but only if policies and programs are in place to enhance their opportunities and encourage smaller families. A cycle of positive outcomes can result from having a larger, better-educated workforce with fewer children to support— children who will in turn be more educated and employable, provided that institutions are strengthened and viable economic policies are in place. This policy brief outlines the opportunities and risks that can result from the large numbers of youth growing up in sub-Saharan Africa today.

What Is the 'Demographic Dividend'?

Many developing countries have young populations because of recent decades of high fertility (births per woman) along with improvements in child survival. A drop in fertility can change a country’s age structure and can profoundly affect the economy. As youthful populations become older and have fewer children than previous generations, a bulge in the working-age population can result. When there are more working-age adults (usually defined as ages 15 to 64) relative to children under age 15 and the elderly, then workingage people have a lower dependency burden—fewer people to support with the same income and assets.

Most countries in Africa are projected to have more working-age adults per child in 2030 than they did in 2006 (see Figure 1). Many countries in Asia and Latin America are also seeing similar growth in the share of the working-age population.1

Working-age adults per dependent child in 2006 and 2030

A large workforce with fewer children to support creates a window of opportunity to save money on health care and other social services; improve the quality of education; increase economic output because of more people working; invest more in technology and skills to strengthen the economy; and create the wealth needed to cope with the future aging of the population. Some economists call this window of opportunity the “demographic dividend” (or “bonus”). The window eventually closes when the workforce ages and relatively fewer workers have to support increasing numbers of older people. But the period of the potential bonus can last for several decades.

East Asia’s “economic miracle” provides the best evidence of the potential impact of the demographic dividend. As early as the 1950s, countries in this region developed strong public health systems that ensured child survival, promoted smaller families, and made contraception acceptable and easy to obtain. In the 1950s, the typical East Asian woman had six children, but by the mid-1990s she had only two. A strong educational system and sound economic management made it possible to absorb the large generation of young adults into the workforce. From 1965 to 1990, growth in gross domestic product (GDP) per capita averaged more than 6 percent per year—spectacular growth compared with countries in other regions.

  1. See Donna Clifton et al., Population and Economic Development Linkages: 2007 Data Sheet (Washington, DC: Population Reference Bureau, 2007).

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