This is the Life: Foote had it right

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Put them to work. Send them to war. Or suffer the consequences. I was at a conference more than a dozen years ago when demographer, economist and author David Foote made those observations, explaining the choices leaders make when their country has a large population of young people.

Foote was the author of Boom, Bust and Echo: How to Profit from the Coming Demographic Shift, which when released in 1996 became a surprise bestseller. It introduced many of us to a different way of thinking about economics and how to understand the massive changes that were about to occur. The Australian-born University of Toronto professor backed up his assertions with historical evidence and he has proven to be an accurate predictor of how changing demographics affect economies and economies.

Each time I hear or read on the news about another country in turmoil I think about Foote’s commentary about where population growth was happening, which was and is predominantly in Muslim countries. He made no value judgments, just observations.

When a country’s population growth spurt leads to a large number of people in their 20s, he said, stability demands that they be kept occupied. There needs to be jobs for them to move into. Less desirably, but as effective, at least in the short term, is that they be sent to war, where they are kept well occupied. (Foote didn’t say this, but I will — the ones who are killed in battle help reduce the pressure when the fighting is over.) In the absence of either alternative, Foote said, a government can expect to face a restless demographic that has too much time on its hands. For a person in his or her 20s to get out of bed each day without a sense of hope and opportunity, the prospects become dismal and they respond as they have done historically—they turn to crime or mischief or, even, revolution.

While I haven’t followed Foote’s recent activities, I think it’s probably safe to say that he issued warnings about what was about to happen in the Middle East, with uprisings in Egypt, Syria and Libya showing that even populations in a dictatorship can rise up when they feel they have no future. And I’m certain he wouldn’t have been surprised by the rioting in France and England that has shocked much of the world. Both countries are facing economic challenges and offer dismal prospects to those entering the workforce, particularly ones who might be under-educated or members of visible minorities.

Is dissent among youthful populations a sign of things to come? Count on it. With modern communications technology reaching into almost every corner of the world it becomes increasingly difficult to convince the poor that they should simply accept their fate and continue their daily scramble for food, clean water, housing and basic necessities. As they learn that not everyone on the planet is in the same boat, who can really be surprised when they decide to take matters into their own hands?

Sadly, looking for solutions might well be fruitless. Although some of the world’s natural resources are already being depleted, only continued population growth can fuel economic growth. Aging demographic segments need younger segments to provide the services they require and, being human, we certainly aren’t willing to make personal sacrifices for the benefit of future generations. That’s why most countries have run up enormous debts—we want to eat our cake and have it, too.

A few years after I saw Foote for the first time (in Eastern Canada), he spoke at another conference, this time in Vancouver. He asked a few people in the audience what town or city they lived in, then asked some, “So are you closing schools yet?” The answer, without exception, was yes. Demographic analysis 20 years ago had indicated what would happen, he said. Sadly, knowing what is about to happen doesn’t mean that we know how to change it.

Lorne Eckersley is the publisher of the Creston Valley Advance.