HOW DEMOCRACIES GROW UP

March 25, 2008

Many developing countries could improve their chances of maintaining high levels of freedom if they would just -- demographically speaking-- "grow up," says writer Richard P. Cincotta.  Since the mid 1970s, countries with a high proportion of young people and very rapid growth of those entering their working years (ages 15 to 64) have been far less likely to maintain democratic gains than those with more "mature" populations.  In other words, a country\'s chances for meaningful democracy increase as its population ages.

We can detect this pattern by tracking the proportion of 15 to 29 year olds in the working age population in states that, in recent decades, have achieved a truly liberal democracy, says Cincotta:

  • When the young adult proportion dropped into the range between 36 and 42 percent, full democracies evolved without the political backsliding or military coups that had been so common in Asian and Latin American politics.
  • Where high levels of democracy emerged well before the young adult proportion declined, countries typically settled into less liberal regimes -- as did Ecuador, Fiji, Malaysia, Pakistan and Venezuela.

The reason a country\'s age structure influences its political regime lies in the details of the demographic transition, explains Cincotta:

  • When larger than average proportions of adolescents move into their working years, wages typically slump and unemployment swells
  • This gives rise to conditions that make it easier for political groups to mobilize and recruit disillusioned and disaffected young males.
  • As numerous studies have shown, populations with excessive numbers of young people invite a higher risk of political violence and civil strife than others.
  • Assuming Hobbes was correct when he described how citizens are willing to relinquish liberties when faced with threats to their security and property, its not surprising that support for authoritarians should rise when a large chunk of the society is young and jobless.

Source: Richard P. Cincotta, "How Democracies Grow Up," Foreign Policy, March/April 2008.

 

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