“The Young and Restless”
“The world is now home to a tipping-point generation that will bend the arc of history. There’s little time left.” Sengupta
“We love death as you love life.” Osama bin Laden
“Violence, makes people poor, but poverty doesn’t appear to make them violent.” Mercy Corps
As national security experts are consumed by immediate threats such as the ISIS war and North Korea, we risk missing one of the biggest strategic disruptions that the United States and Europe have faced in decades. More people between the ages of 15 and 24 live in the world today than ever before in human history. That age cohort is likely to grow steadily for the next generation or more. What’s more, these young people are concentrated in the most volatile and conflict-prone regions of the world. It is extremely significant that these places are among the most fertile recruiting grounds for transnational terrorist groups.
The millions of youth who are located in volatile areas are targeted by terrorist groups for recruitment. The ways they transition into adulthood could transform not only their own societies but the global security landscape as well—for good or for ill.
Let’s take a brief look at how the explosive growth of the youth demographic is impacting the world today and how it will affect the near future as well as generations to come. We will also address some possibilities as to how we as Christians can help to create a redemptive global environment in which the next generation of youth can prosper, find hope and become agents of change for good.
The United States, Europe, the Arab world or anywhere else for that matter, cannot afford to ignore the demographic youth explosion. In the U.S., these problems may seem distant and unimportant against the backdrop of more urgent threats. However, to head off a severe potential challenge before it consumes lives and undermines prosperity is of the utmost importance.
While countries across Europe and East Asia are grappling with declining birthrates and aging populations, societies in the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia are experiencing youth booms of staggering proportions. More than half of Egypt’s labor force is under 30 years old. Half of Nigeria’s population of 167 million is between the ages of 15 and 34. In Afghanistan, Angola, Chad, East Timor, Niger, Somalia, and Uganda, more than two-thirds of the population is under the age of twenty five.
Consider India. More than 300 million Indians are under the age of 15, making India home to more children than any country, at any time, in all of human history. To put the size of this generation’s numbers into perspective, think about this: If these children formed a country, that country would be the fourth largest in the world, still smaller than the United States but larger than Indonesia, Brazil, and Pakistan.
India is far from being the only country confronting a booming youth population. Africa’s current population of 200 million young people between the ages of 15 and 24 is set to double by 2045. In the Middle East, a region of some 400 million people, nearly 65 percent of the population is younger than age 30 — the highest proportion of youth to adults in the region’s history.
It is not my desire to present a dystopia global future, but the truth is that the population growth is taking place in the developing world. Historically, developing countries have had difficult times turning population explosions into assets instead of problems.
The National Intelligence Council noted earlier this year in its quadrennial, “Global Trends” report that ‘youthful states’ tend to be ‘ill-equipped to meet the demands of sustained high fertility, rapid urban growth… and an underemployed young-adult population, potentially contributing to instability.’” In other words, the places where the massive population explosion is occurring are unprepared to deal with the challenges of such a demographic surge apart from the help of others.
The problem of the largely youth populous is acutely obvious when it comes to their unemployment. The International Labor Organization, or ILO, estimated in a 2016 report that, after years of slow improvement, unemployment for 15 to 24 year olds around the world swelled to just above 13 percent in 2016, or 71 million people, nearly its historic peak. Not coincidentally, a large proportion of these unemployed young people live in lower-income, developing countries facing youth booms.
Without work now or good future prospects, these young people resort to migration within and beyond country borders, sometimes stirring social unrest and straining host governments’ ability to accommodate their basic needs. For a small minority of these young people, their mounting frustration risks sending them into the willing arms of extremist groups, either in their communities or on the internet.
The traditional tools of human development: education, job training and other supportive services remain essential to giving young people the opportunities and tools needed in order to avoid involvement in violent extremism. They are however, not enough. Such intervention must be accompanied by providing possibilities for them to engage productively in their communities and, ideally to contribute to ensuring just and reliable governances. These variables accompanied by a spiritual transformation that changes peoples hearts and minds will be absolutely necessary for this next generation. The immensity and complexity of this task is staggering and will not be solved by superficial or simplistic solutions.
In the review above I have stated a pretty clear case for where the world is headed and how the youth explosion simply cannot be ignored as “their problem.” It is a truly global dilemma with catastrophic repercussions on our lives, the lives of our children and of our children’s children. We cannot in good conscience do nothing. It is not going away.
What are we going to do? What responsibility do we share in helping this next enormous generation who have been born into poverty find a way out and a way towards hope? The Bible is clear on the subject. It says, “He who oppresses the poor taunts his Maker, but he who is gracious to the needy honors Him.” (Proverbs 14:31) Also, from the Bible: “One who is gracious to a poor man lends to the LORD, And He will repay him for his good deed.” Proverbs 19:17 If we are truly Christian, there is little wiggle room for us in this matter. We are to be involved in helping the poor. For whatever reason they are poor, we are to help them. I am not advocating unthinking help; I am proposing that we demonstrate an intelligent compassion that meets people at their genuine point of need.
With the potential for such massive disaffection in the world, the youth explosion creates an environment where Islamist jihadist, or for that matter, any extremist organization, will have a heyday with recruitment and mobilization to their causes. The Islamic State’s message has already been made clear: “A new generation of jihadists is being raised to replace those who have fallen, including those who have already struck inside the USA and Europe.”
I discovered a blog by Tim Elmore at GrowingLeaders.com. He made some thoughtful suggestions on how extremist organizations attract youth today and how we might be able to counteract those intellectual forays through our intentional actions. Here are five ways that he sees extremist organizations capturing the hearts of our youth including ways we can work against the extremists.
1. Social Media Connection
It is important to remember that ISIS usually connects with young people first through social media. The internet is essential, according to Koehler. One goal of Isis is to produce 30-40 high quality videos a day in almost every language. “They have an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 Twitter accounts. Guides for carrying out jihad and how to join the Islamic State are easily available on-line.”
As we, as Christians enlist students, do we leverage social media well? Or, would students say our “brand” is antiquated and “tired?” Do we create engaging videos? Do we recruit through original and compelling ideas? Do we interact via the internet? Have we created a community online for young people to join?
2. Contrarian Viewpoint to Mainstream Thought
Young people have always been drawn to ideas that reject the “status quo” and combat what’s being done by mainstream adults. Do you remember the “Baby Boomers” as young people in the sixties? Extremists are contrarian, and while unhealthy in their methods, they offer ways for youth to express themselves for what they believe are “civil rights,” taking on a perceived “unjust system” wherever they live.
Would students view us as merely “status quo?” Or, do they see us as an organization (or school) that challenges the status quo and unjust systems? Do we think for ourselves and offer fresh solutions to today’s problems? Have we found ways to communicate to students that, while we are established we can also be contrarian?
3. The Offer to Become Someone Significant
One practice the terrorist groups do well is pitch the idea that to join them, your identity will improve. You will be someone important. You will know people who are important. Experts say that one of the greatest draws for young followers is the promise of belonging to a significant collective. Members tell their stories of impact and the stories can be heard in schools, in communities and on-line.
What do we offer that would make a student feel significant? How do we improve a young person’s identity? Is their perception that they get to do something significant, or do they simply fill a position that feels like “going through the motions?” Are we about maintenance or mission?
4. Grievances Against Society as a Whole
The Islamic jihadists attract those who experience negative emotions. They appeal to those who are disenfranchised and they franchise them. Many causes throughout history have drawn the marginalized young person who feels they have nothing to lose. Charlie Winter, an expert in jihadist militancy says, “Real or perceived grievances in the hands of a recruiter can reach fever pitch.”
Do we attract students who are marginalized or mainstream? Do we make a kid on the fringes feel welcome? Do we encourage students to turn their negative emotions into positive ones, helping them channel depression into hope and action?
5. The Challenge to Invest Your Life in Something Big
Extremist groups offer a “cause” to join. Ideology is very important but equally so is how people feel about the society in which they live, according to experts. The appeal doesn’t begin with violence. It begins with doing something significant, focusing on being someone important. Once a young adult buys into the idea, they’re willing to take extreme measures on behalf of the “cause.” They want to prove they belong to their society.
What do we provide that makes a student feel like they’re doing something very important and almost impossible? Are we up to something big? Are students compelled to join our organizations or clubs because they demand the best of them? Is our vision easy to understand yet a challenge to achieve?
There you have it. Written above is very practical advice for those who are teachers, parents, little league coaches, Sunday school teachers or governmental policy makers. We can no longer put our heads in the sand on this one. As I quoted Sengupta above, “The world is now home to a tipping-point generation that will bend the arc of history. There’s little time left.” This is a reality we can count on.
Here Come the Young… foreignpolicy.com/2016/08/12/here-comes-the-young-youth-bulge-demographics/
The Pentagon’s Next Terrorism Threat (and Solution): Kids… http://www.defenseone.com/ideas/2017/12/pentagons-next-terrorism-threat-and-solution-kids/144513/
26.3% of youth unemployed, 51.2% suffer poverty… https://www.dailynewsegypt.com/2015/08/11/26-3-of-youth-unemployed-51-2-suffer-poverty/
Youth Unemployment in Nigeria: A Situation Analysis… https://www.brookings.edu/2014/09/23/youth-unemployment-in-nigeria-a-situation-analysis/
The 10 Youngest Nations by Population? They’re Mainly in Africa… passblue.com/2015/02/10/the-top-10-youngest-nations-by-population-theyre-mainly-in-africa/
Africa’s youth: a “ticking time bomb” or an opportunity? … http://www.un.org/africarenewal/magazine/may-2013/…
Middle East Youth Bulge: Challenge or Opportunity?… https://www.brookings.edu/on-the-record/middle-east-youth-bulge-challenge-or-opportunity/
Tim Elmore, Growing Leaders… https://growingleaders.com/blog/five-reasons-terrorist-attractive-youth/
Somini Sengupta… https://www.amazon.com/End-Karma-Among-Indias-Young/dp/0393071006
https://www.ceps.eu/system/files/book/1698.pdf The success of Osama Bin Laden is not to have established a modern and efficient Islamist political organization, but to have invented a narrative that could allow rebels without a cause to connect with a cause.