In Tunisia and Egypt, the young are rebelling against old rulers. In Britain, they are in revolt against tuition fees. What do these young people have in common? They are suffering, albeit in different ways, from what David Willetts, the UK government’s minister of higher education, called the “pinch” in a book published last year.
In some countries, the challenge is an excess of young people; in others, it is that the young are too few. But where the young outnumber the old, they can hope to secure a better fate through the ballot box. Where the old outnumber the young, they can use the ballot box to their advantage, instead. In both cases, powerful destabilising forces are at work, bringing opportunity to some and disappointment to others.
Demography is destiny. Humanity is in the grip of three profound transformations: first, a far greater proportion of children reaches adulthood; second, women have far fewer children; and, third, adults live far longer. These changes are now working through the world, in sequence. The impact of the first has been to raise the proportion of the population that is young. The impact of the second is the reverse, decreasing the proportion of young people. The third, in turn, increases the proportion of the population that is very old. The impact of the entire process is first to expand the population and, later on, to shrink it once again.