How Democracies Grow Up

Countries with too many young people may not have a fighting chance at freedom.

These are tough times for the world’s democrats. The easy democratic transitions are history, the remaining partial democracies are stalled, and the newest liberal democracies are faltering as they struggle to hold on to past reforms. Chaos in Iraq, the tightening grip of Vladimir Putin in Russia and Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, and the ability of China’s political elite to paint a veneer of international respectability on a deeply noncompetitive autocracy all seem to reinforce this gloomy picture.

But prevailing wisdom can be wrong. In fact, many developing countries could improve their chances of maintaining high levels of freedom if they would just — demographically speaking — "grow up." Since the mid-1970s, countries with a high proportion of young people and very rapid growth of those entering their working years (ages 15 to 64) have been far less likely to maintain democratic gains than those with more "mature" populations. In other words, a country’s chances for meaningful democracy increase as its population ages. We can detect this pattern by tracking the proportion of 15- to 29-year-olds in the working-age population in states that, in recent decades, have achieved a truly liberal democracy (defined here as "free" in Freedom House’s country ratings). When the young-adult proportion dropped into the range between 36 and 42 percent, full democracies evolved without the political backsliding or military coups that had been so common in Asian and Latin American politics. Where high levels of democracy emerged well before the young-adult proportion declined, countries typically settled into less liberal regimes — as did Ecuador, Fiji, Malaysia, Pakistan, and Venezuela.

The reason a country’s age structure influences its political regime lies in the details of the demographic transition — the shift from large to small families that, after a lag of about two decades, turns societies with a "youth bulge" into more mature ones. When larger-than-average proportions of adolescents move into their working years, wages typically slump and unemployment swells, giving rise to conditions that make it easier for political groups to mobilize and recruit disillusioned and disaffected young males. As one might expect, and as numerous studies have shown, populations with excessive numbers of young people invite a higher risk of political violence and civil strife than others. Assuming Thomas Hobbes was correct when he described how citizens are willing to relinquish liberties when faced with threats to their security and property, it’s not surprising that support for authoritarians should rise when a large chunk of society is young and jobless.

Where are these youthful populations? As a rule, everywhere there had been a high fertility rate 20 years before. Because a youth bulge dissipates only after about two decades of fertility decline, today more than half the world’s countries remain too young for comfort. More than 40 countries are chronically young — with total fertility rates still above four children per woman. However, in another 70 countries, the demographic transition is more advanced, and the chances for liberalization are closer at hand.

So, when can the world expect the next uptick in the number of free societies? The answer is, at best, a statistical one. Countries with a young-adult population of around 39 percent have a 50-50 chance of being considered "free." This "even-bet" benchmark provides a fair indication — plus or minus a decade — of the timing of stable, liberal democracy.

The first (and perhaps most surprising) region that promises a shift to liberal democracy is a cluster along Africa’s Mediterranean coast: Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt, none of which has experienced democracy in the recent past. The other area is in South America: Ecuador, Colombia, and Venezuela, each of which attained liberal democracy demographically "early" but was unable to sustain it. Interpreting these forecasts conservatively, we can expect there will be one, maybe two, in each group that will become stable democracies by 2020.

Of course, there are caveats. By itself, a society’s age can’t tell us, for example, which countries really are on the verge of democracy and why. This schedule can only suggest the timing of opportunities and the persistence of obstacles. There’s also another reason to be cautious — the schedule’s past performance exposes a few whopping failures, such as China, Cuba, and Russia, which should be liberalizing but are not, and Thailand, which should have held on to its liberal democracy but did not. In southern Africa, AIDS should be making states more fragile politically, but it is not.

These aren’t cause to abandon the analysis, however. In fact, its failures can be even more enlightening than its forecasts. For example, the projections hold up well in weak personal dictatorships, partial democracies, and states ruled by military "caretaker" regimes. A downward-trending young-adult proportion seems to strengthen the appeal of democrats and perhaps provides the political calm that authoritarians need to make a safe exit. However, the timetable shows that a maturing population is far too weak a phenomenon on its own to undermine strong personal dictatorships — regimes run by tough, charismatic authoritarians (what Castro was, and what Chávez would like to be). Intensely ideological one-party systems, such as China’s, look equally impervious. One might easily come to the conclusion that charismatic personal dictatorships and ideological one-party systems evolved to withstand the undercurrents of socioeconomic and demographic change.

Despite its problems, though, and perhaps because of them, this demographic schedule for democracy offers a starting point for realistic discussions about where and when in the world political freedom is likely to arise and be sustained. Above all, this outlook is imbued with built-in hopefulness: The more accurate it becomes, the more certain we can be that liberal democracy is an "end state," and that as the world develops, states join a path that — though strewn with obstacles — is heading in the right direction.

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For a map of the countries where young populations should decline and democracy should rise, visit

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