Demography is the study of human populations. A growing body of evidence now shows the influence of demography on the destiny of a nation. According to American sociologist Jack Goldstone, civil conflicts, revolts and revolutions in many parts of the world have resulted from a confluence of socio-economic, political and population-related factors. Several political scientists and demographers concur that the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa known as the Arab Spring were spurred on by a disfranchised young population. The political scientist Shingo Hamanaka, while analysing the causes of the Arab spring in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Yemen, noted that in these countries there was a high proportion of disgruntled young people who were out of jobs. This was exacerbated by skyrocketing food prices and social inequality. The political turmoil and instability unleashed by the Arab Spring continues to persist, transitioning into the Arab Winter as the reasons for the discontentment of the people have yet to be addressed.
While empirical evidence does not establish direct causality between conflict and population dynamics, it is still seen to influence or aggravate the factors that lead to social upheavals and uprisings. In an analysis of the causes of the Iranian revolution of 1979, Huma Firouzbakhch showed that among the many direct causes of the revolution, demography also played an important indirect role. At the time of the revolution Iran had a high population growth rate. Around 40 per cent of the population was below the age of 15 years. Around 38 per cent of the population was residing in urban areas and a quarter of educated youth were unemployed. The population of the capital city Tehran — the hotbed of the revolution — had doubled in the decade preceding the revolution due to rapid rural-urban migration.
Today we are sitting on a demographic time bomb. Our high population growth rate has precipitated the rapid expansion of our young population. Currently 60 per cent of our population is below 25 years of age while 27 per cent is between the ages of 15 and 29 years. According to the Labour Force Survey 2017-18, the total graduate and postgraduate unemployment rate was estimated at 16.3 per cent. The reports that candidates with postgraduate education are applying for low-paid positions that are not commensurate with their qualifications are indeed most disturbing. An unemployed youth bulge, exorbitant increase in the price of foodstuff, fuel and utility charges, unaffordable quality healthcare, and rising poverty can all lead to a social cataclysm that poses a serious threat to our national security.
To defuse the ticking time bomb, we need to reverse some of our demographic trends. Foremost among these, the government must focus more resolutely in its efforts on population planning, declaring it a national priority as has been done by many of our neighbouring countries. A few years after the revolution, Iran realised that positive social change was possible only by reducing its population size. It successfully managed to drastically bring down its fertility rate in a short span of time. We need to focus on providing easy access to family planning services and lower our population growth rate to sustainable levels; invest in human resource development to generate more jobs for our youth; create economic opportunities in our rural areas to reduce rural to urban migration thus mitigating the civic strain on our cities and finally; and improve the health status of our women and children. The destiny of Pakistan is, in the words of the Quaid-e-Azam, to become one of the greatest nations in the world. Let us all work to fulfil his vision.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 12th, 2021.
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