Current demographic and social trends in sub-Saharan Africa raise concern about the region’s youth bulge, i.e., the historically-large cohort of adolescents coming of age. Today, youth between the ages of 15-24 constitute 20% of SSA’s total population. Their absolute count, nearing 200 millions, makes them the largest generation this region has ever had to raise. To both social scientists and policy planners in the region, this demographic trend represents both an opportunity and a risk.

On the positive side, this largest generation could become Africa’s greatest generation.  To achieve this happy scenario, the region must fully harness the energy and unique skills of this generation. Countries must help these youth smoothly enter adulthood and the labor market. If they do, the region could capture its so-called demographic dividend, i.e., the socioeconomic benefits expected from its current decline in birth rates and dependency ratios. However, raising, educating, and employing all the region’s youth is a daunting challenge in a context of limited opportunity and rapid social change.

On the flip side, failure to integrate this large generation would severely compromise the region’s development prospects, and raise major security concerns. The concerns stem not simply from the large number of youth but from the facts that a) many of these youth are NEET (not in education, employment or training) and b) young adulthood is generally a time of risk-taking behavior. In short, today’s large youth cohorts can be a powerful catalyst of existing sources of violence.

For these reasons, most African countries seek to capture their dividend and address their youth bulge. So far, much of the policy debate has revolved around economic dividends and a “poverty-violence” narrative, i.e., countries must provide employment as a means to avert political violence.

In this project, we expand the “poverty-violence” narrative in two ways, as it relates to Africa’s youth bulge. First, we expand the spectrum of violence beyond/below extreme forms of overt physical violence directed at large groups and institutions (~terrorism). Instead, we also cover violence that is not a) physical in nature but social, psychological and economic, b) overt and dramatic but steady and insidious c) directed at others but self (suicide, substance abuse..). Even if these subtler forms are less dramatic than large-scale terrorist activity, they reinforce each other and all contribute to generalized insecurity.

As a second expansion, we go beyond the focus on poverty and jobs. Instead, we raise the broader question of social integration and identity. The task, we argue, is not only to offer jobs but to integrate youth in rapidly changing societies marked by a breakdown of families, rapid urbanization, growing inequality and consumerism, or globalization. How the current generation of African youth broadly fit in this new world – will determine the stability and long-term security of African societies. The alienation or radicalization of youth is seen as a gradual process, with the demographic bulge turning into an economic bulge, then sociological, and finally, a political problem if the necessary steps are not taken to socially integrate youth.


Major Goals

To study these ideas, our research will establish a baseline survey to follow 5,000 high school seniors in a sub-Saharan setting, and take stock of the challenges youth face as they transition into adulthood and the world of work.

Special attention is paid to experience of various forms of violence, and how these experiences can be mitigated by carefully-designed policy interventions. Our randomized policy experiments cover a range of interventions that can foster resilience and socioeconomic integration. These include

  1. motivational messaging
  2. professional exposure to civil society and law enforcement institutions and
  3. afterschool life-planning & resilience building programming.

This range of interventions is scaled from easily deployable, very low-cost programming (i.e. daily motivational text messages) to logistically most complex and costly programs (i.e. afterschool activities). Our study design allows us to assess each intervention in terms of both impact (i.e., does it significantly impact youth’s views, behaviors and outcomes?), as well as cost effectiveness, an important considering in resource limited settings. This knowledge will be crucial for national governments across the region in their efforts to develop effective engagement policies for the “Dividend Generation”.

Our project seeks to have both important scientific and policy relevance. On the scientific side, despite their importance, there is limited data on the concerns, behaviors and trajectories of the dividend generation in Africa. We envision is project serving to highlight the importance of long-term youth studies (similar to the NLSY in the United States) in the region.

On the policy relevance side, we hope this project can shed light into the challenges faced by this generation. The continent has changed rapidly over the past quarter century, and the socioeconomic realities faced by youth may not be readily apparent to policymakers. We believe the data can highlight the current challenges and opportunities. We intend to use results from project activities, including the survey, but also from the interventions, interviews and other scientific materials, to disseminate information to both policymakers and the broader public on issues related to the youth bulge.