06 October 2014

Angry young men

Given that this is more or less how this extended reflection began, I thought it worth noting that the BBC and Washington Post alike seem to think we’re going to hell in a hand basket.

As, apparently, does my mother. She and I had a rather fraught discussion recently about whether or not Islam was an inherently violent religion. I fell adamantly on the shenangins, not more so than any other side of this debate (do we know how to leverage our limited and valuable skype time or what?!). Instead, I postulated that much of the violence we see stemming from purportedly Islamic sources has more to do with other conflict drivers that are masked and legitimized by faith. We’ve been over a few of these – relative economic deprivation and increased commodity competition spring to mind – but possibly one of the most critical, especially in the Middle East, is demographic shifts.

The field of security demographics is a rich one, with a wealth of sub-topics including the mass urbanization that we touched on briefly before. It could also include diversity (or a dangerous lack thereof), immigration (legal and otherwise, internal and external), sub-replacement birth rates in developed countries, as well as the impact of pandemics likes HIV/AIDS. Let’s take, as a quick illustrative example: the issue of population movements. Mass migration of people can result in all kinds of interesting collisions, like say an influx of poor people to affluent areas (as in the case of urbanization), thereby highlighting relative deprivation (which, if you recall, is more of a conflict driver than absolute deprivation), or perhaps the creation of a diaspora which enables a home-country conflict to run overlong (Sri Lanka, we’re looking at you). Per the RAND Corporation, “demographic factors can also help cause conflicts…The most likely mechanisms through which this could happen would be mass migrations or refugee flows in politically tense regions, the creation of ideological revolutions in large states, or the outbreak of ethnic conflict in states with an intermixed pattern of ethnic settlements.”

Which is all well and good and super interesting, but not actually what I’d like to talk about (surprise, surprise). Instead, let’s talk about the fellas. Yes – the gents of the world, with all their strength and intelligence and energy – violent, angry, anarchic energy. Think I’m overstating things? Take this on for size - that section of the male population aged (depending on who you ask) 15-24/29, who I shall now refer to with gleeful misandry as Angry Young Men, are a key indicator for conflict and have been for a VERY LONG TIME (do not believe this article with it refers to this phenomenon as underappreciated).

According to one Mr. Richard Cincotta of Population Action International (which I feel a little icky about linking to in this context, for reasons I will eventually explain), “from continent to continent and across race and religion, the ‘demographic’ of insurgency, ethnic conflict, terrorism, and state-sponsored violence holds constant. The vast majority of recruits are young men, most of them out of school and out of work. It is a formula that hardly varies, whether in the scattered hideouts of Al Qaeda, on the backstreets of Baghad or Port-au-Prince, or in the rugged mountains of Macedonia, Chechnya, Afghanistan, or eastern Colombia.” That’s quite a statement, but it’s backed by some pretty serious historical precedent. Going back even further, we find a bevy of conflicts linked with disproportionately large populations of young men, including the civil war in mædieval Portugal, the 17th century English Revolution, the French Revolution, the Spanish conquest of the Americas, and the rise of the Nazi party in Germany.

The Peace Research Institute of Oslo has even found that an increase of just one per cent in a given youth population results in a four per cent increase in the likelihood that country will experience conflict. Furthermore, when youth make up more than 35 per cent of the adult population, the risk of conflict is 150 per cent higher. When it goes up to 40 per cent, the correlating stat jumps to 250 times more likely to experience an outbreak of civil conflict than countries with lower proportions of young adults.

Why for? As with climate change, AYM are probably best understood as insecurity multipliers: male youth bulges can exacerbate conditions like unemployment or poverty or resource scarcity to create social unrest. This surge of adolescents virtually guarantees that the number of educated young persons will outpace job growth, leaving even bookish young men underemployed, frustrated, and resentful of those who enjoy the opportunities they lack. While not the overt cause of armed conflict, these demographic factors can facilitate recruitment into insurgent organizations and extremist networks or into militias and political gangs— now among the major employers of young men and the main avenues of political mobility in weaker countries. And because a youth bulge usually occurs in rapidly growing populations where fertility is high, where women have low status, and where vital services are limited, a youthful demographic is often accompanied by other potentially destabilizing demographic forces and adverse social and economic conditions. For example, nearly all of the countries with a large youth bulge are also undergoing a rapid rate of urban growth (more than three per cent per year), contributing to urban decay and sprawling slums. This can go all kinds of interesting places, including discussing how HIV/AIDS skews the youth bulge even younger. But we already have more than enough on our plate, so let’s soldier on.

It is perhaps helpful to take a fairly broad view of unemployment in this context, embracing not only true joblessness, but also underemployment, working poverty, and (perceived) disenfranchisement. The employment caveat is not in any way insignificant or imagined, as young people account for just about 60 per cent of the global poor and 40 per cent of the unemployed. This is wildly out of proportion to their share of the working-age population – a mere 25 per cent.

Egypt and the Arab Spring are, apparently, also good case study here (the gift that keeps on giving), as the population of Egypt now has roughly 20 million more people than did the entirety of the 18-state Middle East in the 1950s. That’s bananas. On a municipal level, Cairo is the most populous metropolitan area on the African continent, and one of the most densely populated cities in the world. As you might expect, such a recent population explosion also means that we’re looking a massive youth bulge. This is especially true of Egypt, where some 54 per cent of the population is under 24. There are 24 million Egyptians who are between the ages of fifteen and twenty-nine, also referred to in the demographic security field as ‘fighting age’ (that’s not ominous at all. Thanks, demographers!). To cap it all off, the Middle East has the dubious honour of boasting some of the highest unemployment rates in the world. Focusing in on Egypt again (which rather fabulously provides free higher education), its population is not only young and un- or underemployed, but also highly educated (and therefore more likely to be dissatisfied), and terrifically savy with social media (so apt to more readily organise). Right there, we’ve got the motive (education, lack of work), means (social media, lack of work), and energy (youth and anger) to foster the Arab Spring and subsequent social unrest.

Each of these risk factors is related to the demographic transition—a process that all countries either have gone or are going through, taking them from a population typified by short lives and large families to one with long lives and small families. About one-third of the world’s countries are still in the early parts of their transition, with the average family size exceeding four children per woman (it’s 6.6 in Congo). If the high-fertility northern states of India are included, these regions are home to nearly 1.5 billion of the world’s 6.4 billion people.

In the early stages of the demographic transition, women typically work in and around the home, boys stay in school far longer than girls, and the average citizen lacks basic knowledge of and access to vital public health services. By the transition’s end, women have been well integrated into the urban workforce, infant and maternal mortality are rare, and contraception is widely available through public and private channels (by some of these standards, the US is still transitioning). Drops in the birth rate ultimately translate to a slowdown in the growth rate of adolescents looking for jobs and an increase in the population’s average age. Progress through the demographic transition, meanwhile, has been traditionally associated with increased internal stability, if potentially loss of regional hegemony. I believe it was the gent from PRI who claimed that, “as (Western) populations decline, either absolutely or relatively, their economic clout in the form of percentage of global gross domestic product declines as well.” I see where you’re going with this – as the developed world has less of an economic hold over the rest of the world and reduced militaries (declining birth rates, remember), they won’t be able to manage the developing world with either carrots or sticks. The horror!

If it’s all youth, why for do I and others keep harping on men? PRIO also observed that ‘generally it has been observed that young males are the main protagonists of criminal as well as political violence’. Globally, AYM are responsible for 75 per cent of all violent crimes (as well as being the leading victims of the same). Especially for those who lack prospects in the traditional job market, the cost-benefit calculations for joining a gang or radical organisation or political movement alters rather drastically. Simply put, large, unemployed, poor AYM have a negative effect on security and are more likely to aggravate social unrest.

If this seems a bit reductivist, and possibly edging into Christopher Nolan fantasy territory, well, fair enough. Discussions in this field come with a heavy dose of fear-mongering to be sure. Even so, if we accept this base premise – that large populations, especially those with lots of young men, are scary – the answer seems simple. Let’s invest in family planning, and everything will turn out alright, yes? Not so fast! Because it’s not just a question of youth bulges, right? It’s also about gender. Increasingly, it seems that young men as a proportion of society might well matter more than young people at large. Indeed, the perennial favourites when discussing gender imbalance are China and India, which are actually close to replacement birth rates (1.8 and 3.4, respectively. Okay, so close-ish). It might not therefore be (just) straight youth bulges, but skewed sex ratios we have to worry about.

The go-to reference when it comes to sex rations is probably Mara Hvistendahl’s Unnatural Selection. It’s both delightful and terrifying and you should go read it now. “For as long as they have counted births, demographers have noted that on average 105 boys are born for every 100 girls. This is our natural sex ration at birth…that more boys are born is itself a form of balance, neatly making up for the fact that males are more likely to die young.” However, in several states in what we might somewhat patronizingly call the transitioning world – somewhere between developing and developed. Up-and-coming world? – you have reasonably low fertility rates but massively skewed sex rations. I’m not exaggerating. “For example, in China the sex ratio for children up through age 4 is over 120:100 (120 boys for every 100 girls), according to the 2000 census…In India the sex ratio for children up through age 6 has increased over the past decade from 105.8 to 107.9, though this masks the fact that certain Indian states have much worse ratios -- 126 in Punjab, for example.”

In Unnatural Selection, it is estimated that had Asia’s sex ratio at birth remained at its natural equilibrium over the past few decades, “the continent would have an additional 163 million females…If 160 million women were missing from the US population, you would notice – 160 million is more than the entire female population of the US.” Indeed, when taken together, India and China have such large populations with such pronounced gender imbalance that they are able to skew the global sex ratio to 107, despite the fact that women outnumber men in most of the rest of the world. India and China are not alone, of course. Other countries of concern include Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Taiwan, Afghanistan, South Korea, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Armenia.

As one might imagine, gender imbalance couples rather unfavourably with youth bulges in that it swings them rather dramatically into AYM territory. After all, if you have a young, agitated population that is predominately composed of men, one of the great ameliorating factors to the AYM phenomenon – marriage – is effectively neutralised. This might sound hopelessly old fashioned, but it’s actually borne out by science: unmarried men have higher testosterone levels than do married men. Moreover, testosterone-rich people of both genders are more likely to express violent tendencies in some ways. “Bachelors between the ages of 24 and 35 are three times as likely to murder another man as a married man of the same age,” even when you control for other variables like socioeconomic status.

Our dour demographers refer to these unmarried/unmarriageable individuals as ‘surplus men’: the ones left over in the thought experiment in which everyone who can marry does so. They also point out that, all things being equal, surplus men are more likely to be relatively economically disadvantaged as, in a gender-imbalanced world, potential wives become yet another scare resource. The Chinese term for these extraneous fellows is apparently bare branches; an evocative term that conjures an image of those mightn’t bear fruit, but can yet find utility as clubs. This, of course, brings us back full-circle to men who, for a whole host of reasons we have now explored, do not feel fully woven into the fabric of society and therefore seek out other disaffect youth to build a community of their own. “Sociologists have found that the ‘risky shift’ in group behaviour, where a group is willing to take greater risks and engage in more reckless behaviour than an individual member of the group, is much more pronounced in groups comprised of unattached young adult males…After examining the evidence, some predictions can be made for societies with rising sex ratios: crime rates will increase; rates of drug use, drug smuggling, weapons smuggling, trafficking, and prostitution will increase” (see what I mean? It’s like all that’s missing from this description is a kangaroo court presided over by Scarecrow).

In an interesting and possibly racist article, two WashPo authors suggest that China, seeing the Egyptian writing on the wall, will attempt a very different and much more pre-emptive response to their own AYM. Recognizing that even they are facing an economic slow-down (that any self-respecting mass of AYM would respond to with domestic instability), China is instead trying to coöpt that energy by channelling it into jingoistic ardour. “Faced with worsening instability at home and an unsolvable economic decline, China’s government may well be tempted to use foreign policy to ‘ride the tiger’ of domestic instability. The government’s fanning of nationalist fervour has already been seen in the dispute over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, where large and violent protests around the country were accompanied by the dramatic public destruction of Japanese goods and strong expressed anti-Japanese sentiments.”

Unnatural Selection looks a bit farther down the line, worrying about what gender imbalance today will mean for the societies of tomorrow. To do so, she uses the Old West to explain school shootings today. Even if it seemed to me a bit tenuous, it’s all together too fabulous to ignore. “In 1880….the mining town of Leadville, Colorado had a saloon for every 80 residents, a casino for every 170 residents, and a grothel for every 200 residents (ah, the good old days). Many western towns openly tolerated prostitution in the belief that access to prostitutes would prevent men from assaulting ‘respectable’ women. Each of Leadville’s churches, by contrast, served five thousand people…Leadville counted 105 murders per 100,000 residents in 1880, compared with 5.8 in Boston…In the sex ratio imbalance of the frontier lay the seeds of a nation’s violence.” Basically, we’re headed back to Deadwood.

In my next and final (and hopefully much more timely) instalment of this little series on violence, we’ll take a look at the flip side of skewed sex ratios and consider how the imbalance impacts women, the ugly role of the West in the creation of a global gender imbalance, and why this is such a fraught issue for progressives. It should be good times!