YouthQuake book review: Why Africa's demography is important

[This is an excerpt from an article in The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs.]

Futurologists lead easy lives. They are rarely held to account for false and misleading forecasts, however wrongheaded. The shock value of the publishing moment delivers sales and then is forgotten, superseded by the next doom-mongering scenario, in an endless series.

Take for instance, this excerpt from a public speech (in 1971, to the British Institute of Biology) made by Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb (1968): ‘[B]y the year 2000 the United Kingdom will be simply a small group of impoverished islands, inhabited by some 70 million hungry people. If I were a gambler, I would take even money that England will not exist in the year 2000’. (p. 35).

So the publishing genre to which Youthquake Why African Demography Should Matter to the World belongs has, to say the least, a chequered history punctuated by not a few howlers.

Book Review – Democracy Works: Turning Politics to Africa’s Advantage
Music and dance diplomacy in the COVID-19 era: Jerusalema and the promotion of South Africa’s soft power
Commonwealth African ministries of youth and non‐formal education

Then there is that rarer, finer, scarier category of authentic prophecy such as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) or Jonathan Schell’s The Fate of the Earth (1982), contributions which permanently change the terms of debate on the issue they address.

What then in a nutshell is the argument of Youthquake? And to which of these categories (if either) does Youthquake belong?

The argument is that Africa is in the midst of the greatest demographic upheaval in human history. (But wait. An instant qualification is in order: this is not so much an ‘explosion’, more a ‘mega-surge’. With a long run-out.) However you slice and dice it, Africa is the main engine of continuing global population growth, especially the sub-Saharan countries.

There is more. Africa’s youth is the most striking aspect of its demography as the rest of the world ages and the populations of many countries start to shrink. Almost 60% of Africa’s population is under 25. These two facts together will have world-transforming consequences.

The author points out early in the book that ‘global narratives fashioned in the West wax and wane” (p10). This commendable self-awareness eases some of the reader’s disquiet at the sheer weight of statistical and tabular data that is deployed to support the argument.

The figure-heavy approach is no doubt influenced by the author’s years as an investment analyst in the City. But it smacks at times of hesitancy, as if no claim not at once supported by evidence could ever be acceptable. This style is familiar to us from the financial quality press but it sits at times uneasily alongside the tabloid-like capsules and factoids of the book design.

Africa, remember, is the easiest big game for the statisticians because nobody is keeping records accurate enough for us to be certain. Peak dependency, for example, is the ratio of the working age population to the dependants of any particular country – and here you will find the graphs to answer all your questions and more. This is probably at the edge of what a popular mass-market readership – as distinct from a coterie of academic specialists – will tolerate.

Martin Mulligan is a member of The Round Table Editorial Board.

Why African Demography Should Matter to the World by Edward Paice, London, Head of Zeus, 2021.