Youth Bulge Vs Demographic Dividend: Where Does the Future of Ethiopia lie?

By Mulugeta Teferi
If the economic expansion of the past fifteen years had achieved something very easy to be recognize by anyone it would be the increase in social service provisions. Given national expenditure capacity, the government has highly invested on Health, Education, Water and Infrastructure (which facilitates more access to social service). In whatever side a person may be taking part in the current ‘Ethiopian Cliquish Homily’, it’s a necessity to recognize this fact at least for the sake of status assessment if not for acknowledgement of EPRDF’s achievement. Because of improvement in Health & Education there is high literacy rate, significant decline in infant mortality, decrease in death rate, and relative decline of birth rate. This decline is likely to continue, again it is also currently resulting social and political vibration in the country. This created a mass of literate (at list it is able to white and read, given technology it can be easily reached and mobilized) and health youth.

Recently the leaders of the current government often talks about the ‘Youth’ (Partially to one region or sometimes generally), this youth is at the center of every change in the recent intense political dynamics of the country. Again, they often mention that population below age 30 accounts 70% from the total population. For an agrarian economy with small urban population size, the urban unemployment ration is more close to 17% (CSA). Given this Ethiopia is ranked around 20th for its highest unemployment rate. This doesn’t include the 80% rural population, what if the rural unemployment is accounted? If it is said the youth constitutes 70% of the total population in Ethiopia, we should ask… does this youth live in urban or rural area? Does the youth living in the rural area own a piece of land? What is the life condition of the rural youths?

If we knew that there is high literacy rate and the sons and daughters of farmers are educated, it is likely that they are looking for the job outside of the subsistence agriculture sector we have. They must be unemployed in rural area without being accounted for unemployment at national level. I don’t think they are working in the farm, or maybe they are adding nothing to the farm. The other issue is, when CSA does urban unemployment survey it must have some kind of yardstick to classify what constitutes to be a ‘resident’. If an educated youth spends the whole day in small town center near to his village and goes back for the nights to his father’s farm 10Km away from the small town he is still unemployed, but unaccounted. The issues are too many, but there is one hard fact. In Current Ethiopia there is high unemployment rate beyond our calculations and numbers. If the youth was employed and had a ‘promising future’ it unlikely to be easily mobilized by anyone including the government (unless through the established economic structure).

This huge Literate, Unemployed, Heathy (compared to the past) can be a source for social and economic transformation or reversed to force to national turmoil. Demographers often talk about the a very positive concept ‘Demographic Dividend’ once an underdeveloped country starts to register fast economic growth, the demographic change is likely to create a large number of Working Force, once in its structural transition period. This force can be harnessed and used to further advancement of the national economy, given that the initial growth created good national institutions and coordination mechanisms. It’s like, if you fail to use this dividend thing your economy may not advance as it supposed to, but you still be fine.

Source: Assefa Admassie & Shelley Megquier, Ethiopia Makes Progress toward a Demographic Dividend (online Article)

On the other hand social scientists talks about ‘Youth Bulge’, which tries to figure out the relation between huge youth population and potential to destabilization. “A positive relationship between the proportion of young adults in a population and its vulnerability to conflict has already been established. Other analyses have demonstrated that countries with a youth bulge (proportion of the adult population ages 15 to 29) of 41 percent or greater are at high risk of civil conflict” (The Shape of Things to Come; Why Age Structure Matters to a Safer, More Equitable World, 2015). But this doesn’t mean that it is only a bad thing. It can be a good or bad thing. A good thing, it may change systems and improve coordination mechanisms in the economy. A bad thing, lead to conflict and destroys everything.

What happens in Ethiopia, all depends on the national institutions which coordinates and fail to coordinate the whole process. In the case of Ethiopia where government plays the lion’s share in the push to Economic Growth failure to deliver leads to a catastrophe. There is too much expectation from these growing youth. ‘A large proportion of young adults and a rapid rate of growth in the working-age population tend to exacerbate unemployment, prolong dependency on parents, diminish self-esteem and fuel frustrations,’ writes Lionel Beehner by quoting Richard P. Cincotta (BeehnerLionel, 2007).

As stated above, only having huge youth population my not directly lead to conflict. When institutions are weak and unable to deliver what is expected from them in terms of job creation and meet expectations after that (sometimes in an economy there may not be much difference in being employed or unemployed). If an employed person perceives no improvement in his life and no inspiring future, he may join the unemployed group in challenging the existing system to get reasonable benefit, because he is as frustrated as the unemployed. “Frustration and competition for jobs do not directly fuel violence, they do increase the likelihood these unemployed youths will seek social and economic advancement by alternative, extralegal means” (Council on Foreign Relations, 2007). In the meantime if national institutions designed to keep law and order are somehow weak or part of the ‘Whole Frustration’ that is another addition to the negative force.

Another thing is this “Youth Bulge” is easy to mobilize, because of their fatigue to old system and hunger for  new ideas. Anyone who is with new idea and not any how attached to the ‘old’ system is likely to harness them into his advantage. They “are often drawn to new ideas and heterodox relations, challenging older forms of authority,” Lionel Beehner by quoting Richard P. Cincotta (BeehnerLionel, 2007).

In general in current Ethiopia there are plenty of reasons which may facilitate one of the two outcomes (positive or negative) that is the trickiest thing. Shocks renew systems as they destroy the existing system or hope of creating new in a near future. Not dismantling your old home before you have the new one is strategic. National Institutions and Institutional mechanisms need to operate at high level at this very sensitive time of the age to create whatever kind of system the people is aspiring for.


  • Beehner, L. (2007, April 13). Council on Foreign Relations. Retrieved from
  • Leahy, E., Engelman, R., Vogel, C. G., Haddock, S., & Preston, T. (2015). The Shape of Things to Come; Why Age Structure Matters to a Safer, More Equitable World. Population Action International.