Watch this space: Africa’s youthquake will shake the world

With a median age of 18.8 years, Africa has the world’s youngest population, by a country mile. No other part of the world has been as young for decades, nor will be for some time. India’s median age is 28.2, and steadily greying China stands at 38.9, already older than the United States, which clocks in at 38.1.

This is certainly an imperfect comparison, not only because the latter three are countries, but also because there is a material variation across Africa. In the fast-growing countries of Western, Middle and Eastern Africa (as defined by the UNDP), the median age is much younger. Southern and Northern Africa, whose fertility is mostly within 2 to 4 children per woman band, are slightly older.

Be that as it may, this fact has an implication worth paying close attention to: by 2050, a third of the world’s youth (those aged 15-24), along with a similarly large share of its working-age population, will live on the continent. Additionally, this share will continue expanding to the end of the century. By 2100, half of the world’s under-18s will be African.

Importantly, as Edward Paice points out in his deeply-researched book Youthquake – Why African Demography Should Matter to the World, much of this growth is already baked-in, meaning it will happen even if the continent’s birth rate were to suddenly drop to sub-replacement over the next decade.

Needless to say, such drop is nowhere on the horizon. As the quality of data on the continent’s population dynamics improves, the UNDP has been revising its medium-variant projections for Africa’s population through 2100 upwards almost every edition of its “World Population Prospects” steadily since the middle of the 2000s.

These upward revisions tend not to receive as much media attention as the occasional downward adjustment, but they have proved to be more durable. And given that, by Paice’s reckoning, the UNDP has been the most reliable population prophet of all, it’s safe to assume that it’s right.

In short, to ironically borrow the words of the population-obsessed Marvel villain Thanos, Africa is inevitable.

Western commentary on this phenomenon, as we pointed out last week, has been decidedly catastrophist. Both the optimists and pessimists seem to agree on one thing: that Africa’s population is growing too fast. To the pessimists, this means that Africa risks becoming overpopulated and descending into chaos as people clamour for scarce resources.

The optimists, for their part, just want Africa to reap the so-called demographic dividend which, most demographers contend, can only come if the continent’s runaway fertility is curbed, thus lowering dependency ratios. Sure, they concede, the build-out of infrastructure and visionary leadership are also important, but a demographic transition is the sine qua non.

However, all this is much ado about nothing. There is no evidence that Africa is anywhere close to being overpopulated. The continent’s landmass is greater than the combined area of the United States, China, India and the European Union, which together have a population of 3.64 billion people right now.



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Besides, the very concept of overpopulation is woefully ill-defined. It’s hobbled by too many confounding variables, not least of which is human ingenuity and the evidence of history, to be taken seriously. So too, is the concept of the demographic dividend, which demographers and the commentariat bandy around as the elixir of development, but has surprisingly scant rigorous backing.

For one, the developed countries of Europe and North America experienced drawn-out demographic transitions that didn’t necessarily coincide with their periods of rapid economic growth. Also, China, the poster child of the demographic dividend, owes its development more to a well-managed market economy than to its ill-advised rush to curb its population, which it is now flailing to reignite.

The demographic dividend verges on a fallacy, a lazy attempt to shoehorn population control into development economics. There is no saying how much it contributes, and for how long, to the development of an economy. And, importantly, it takes no account of the struggles economies face once its vaunted effects wear off.

All this notwithstanding, negativity around Africa’s fertility has proven notoriously difficult to shake off. Every time the world has taken notice, it has inevitably been through this lens, almost to the exclusion of everything else. Not even now, as the low-fertility world awakens to the dire implications of a shrinking population – led by bell-ringers from Elon Musk to the New York Times – is this outlook being shed.

Whether this is out of an invincible ignorance, disinterest or malice does not matter. Its effect is the same: the continent that will soon be home to the largest population of youngsters the world has ever seen, most of them increasingly well-educated, is relegated to obscurity or, where that cracks, negative attention.

But this cannot last.

As the century unfolds, and Africa’s youngsters renew a greying world, everyone will have to pay attention, if nothing else. And those who figure out what Africa’s youth means for them will own the century.


Mathew Otieno is a Kenyan writer, blogger and a dilettante farmer. Until 2022, he was a research communications coordinator at a university in Nairobi, Kenya. He now lives in rural western Kenya, near the shores of Lake Victoria, from where he's pursuing a career as a full-time writer while concluding his dissertation for a master's degree. His first novel is due out this year.

Image credit: Emmanuel Ikwuegbu on Pexels  

Showing 4 reactions

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  • Maryse Usher
    commented 2023-09-19 19:19:06 +1000
    Matthew, loving your reports of the good news ftom Africa. I binge watched the Jerusalema challenge during Covid to enjoy especially the African kids; skinny little twigs grinning and leaping with incredible joie de vivre and energy. So many good lessons for the crepuscular west: Africa loves her children; shaming the selfish, deadly holocaust of babies slaughtered in the west who they have been conceived in spite of the Pill, an atomic population bomb.
    Thank God for Africa and her thriving, growing Christianity!
    Please repel the American oligarchy with its bribe of aid on condition of a culture of death and depravity.
  • Paul Bunyan
    commented 2023-09-19 11:44:54 +1000
    Africa is doomed if it stays on this self-destructive path. The environment is more important than the economy.
  • mrscracker
    Once again, God bless Africa.
  • Mathew Otieno
    published this page in The Latest 2023-09-18 12:26:28 +1000