Global trends in population of young people


By Ebenezer ASHLEY (PhD.)

Universally-accepted definition of the concept of youth remains a challenge to the global community. In some cases, different countries within and across global regions maintain similar or distinct definitions for the concept. However, for statistical purposes, the global umbrella body, United Nations, defines youth to include persons between ages 15 and 24 years. The foregoing definition is without prejudice to other definitions by member countries (UNFPA, n.d., p. 1). At the cusp between adolescents and youth are young people. The United Nations (as cited in UNFPA, n.d., p. 1) defined young people to include individuals between the ages of 10 and 24 years while adolescents refer to persons in the age 10 – 19 years’ category.

Statistics shared by UNFPA (n.d.) revealed in 2010, there were about 602.1 million persons in the 10-14 years’ bracket around the world. This number is expected to surge to 632.965 million by 2050. Data for the 15-19-year group indicated an expected increase from 606.144 million in 2010 to 627.881 million by 2050; and the population size for persons aged between 20 and 24 years is envisaged to rise from 606.816 million in 2010 to 624.050 million by 2050. The analysis suggests steady increase in the respective population sizes for the foregoing age categories over the forty-year period (2010 – 2050).

For instance, about 5.13% increase in size of population for the 10-14 years’ category is expected; the 15-19-year group would witness an estimated 3.59% rise; and population for individuals between ages 20 and 24 years is projected to increase by 2.84%.

The total number of persons in the three-age categories in 2010 was 1,815.014 (602.054 million + 606.144 million + 606.816 million). Thus, the estimated total number of young people leaving across the globe in 2010 was 1.82 billion. This included 225 million youth in China and another 235 million in India.

The estimated total number of young people in 2010 (1.82 billion) is envisaged to surge to 1,884.896 or 1.89 billion (632.965 million + 627.881 million + 624.050 million) by 2050. This translates into an approximate 3.85% increase during the period. The major concern relates to the preparedness of global countries and employment opportunities therein to ensure effective absorption of the population of active young people in the labour markets to assure descent standard of living; and meaningful contribution of this generation of young people to national discourse, including political development and economic growth.

Thus, the population projection presents global leaders with unique opportunity to plan towards inclusion of the next generation of young people in the national development agenda, so the youth development process is not stalled; and their contribution to socio-economic edifice of their respective countries is not retarded or overlooked.

Cumulatively, the youth populations in China (225 million) and India (235 million) constituted about 25.28% of the estimated total population of young people in 2010 (1.82 billion). India’s share of total young people across the globe in 2010 was equivalent to 12.9%. Total young people in China during the period were about 12.4%.

Therefore, it came as no surprise when in 2011 through 2012, India was touted as the country with the largest youth population; and projected to guard jealously against this phenomenon over a long period of time. UNFPA (n.d.) described the total number of young people around the globe in 2010 as an all-time high, with 90% living and constituting significant proportion of the total population in developing economies.

However, UNFPA (n.d.) was pessimistic of considerable increase in population size for young people given the sporadic rate of education and campaign on birth controls and the effect on child delivery in many global countries. World population prospects outlined by the Population Division of the United Nations-DESA (as cited in UNFPA, n.d.) noted, continuous decline in global fertility rates could affect the proportion of young people to global total population in the not-too-distant future. The report projected a decline in proportion of young people to global population from 17.6% in 2010 to 13.5% in 2050, should the current trend (intensive campaign on birth controls) continue unabated.

Available data from UNFPA (n.d.) on developing economies from 1950 through 2010 revealed, average annual population growth rate of 1.5%. This is significantly higher than the 0.1% annual population growth rate projected for 2010 through 2060 for developing economies.

Perhaps, leaders of developing economies are becoming increasingly mindful of the socio-economic implications of increased population size for their respective countries, especially when educational and employment structures have not witnessed massive development to cope with the pressures that may emanate from surging population sizes.

The emphasis now is on improving education, health and institutional structures. Further, the attention is focused on building state-of-the-art transport systems including road, rail, air and water transports to meet investors’ needs to accelerate industrialisation drive at the national and regional levels. The latter is expected to be facilitated by the rapid development of rail and road transport networks at the inter-country level.

As of 2012, about 18% of young people between ages 12 and 24 years were believed to be residing in Africa. While the contributions of other regions to the globe’s total population of young people are projected to decline by 2040, Africa’s share of young people in the foregoing age category is predicted to increase to 28%. Contribution of Asia and the Pacific regions to the globe’s total population of young people between ages 12 and 24 years in 2012 was equivalent to 61%.

However, data shared by Mason (as cited in UNFPA, n.d.) revealed a sharp decline in Asia and the Pacific regions’ contribution from 61% in 2012 to 52% by 2040. Arguably, stringent measures instituted to control procreation among families in China; and ageing population in Japan and other parts of Asia and the Pacific regions are major contributing factors to the expected decline in the population of young people by 2040 in those regions.

Data in Table 1 and Figure 1 reflect a section of report on state of the world’s population presented by UNFPA (as cited in Economic Times, 2014). Statistics shared in the report on global youth population (as cited in Economic Times, 2014) revealed as of 2014, nine in ten of young people across the globe were believed to be living in developing countries.

Although the population of China exceeded that of India, data in Table 1 and Figure 1 indicate the respective populations of young people in India (356 million) and China (269 million) were the largest and second-largest globally, as of 2014.

The respective populations of young people in Indonesia (67 million) and Bangladesh (48 million) were the third- and eighth-largest in the world during the period. Nigeria’s population of young people (57 million) was the sixth-largest; and two places short of the population of young people in the United States (65 million).

Coincidentally, countries in the table and figure are the top eight highest-ranked countries in the world in terms of population size. Available statistics on national population sizes for 2020 revealed China ranked first (1.439 billion), followed by India (1.380 billion), United States (331 million) and Indonesia (274 million) respectively. The other respective rankings were Pakistan (221 million), Brazil (213 million), Nigeria (206 million) and Bangladesh (165 million) (Worldometer, 2021a).

Table 1: Top 8 Countries with Largest Population of Young People

1st India 356,000,000
2nd China 269,000,000
3rd Indonesia 67,000,000
4th United States 65,000,000
5th Pakistan 59,000,000
6th Nigeria 57,000,000
7th Brazil 51,000,000
8th Bangladesh 48,000,000

Source: UNFPA (As cited in Economic Times, 2014)

Earlier predictions (as cited in Shivakumar, 2013) envisaged India’s emergence as the world’s youngest country by 2020, with 64% of her total population within the working age group. Further, the predictions affirmed an increase in India’s youth population to 464 million by 2021; and a decline to 458 million by 2026.

The Indian economy could be described as emerging among a comity of notable nations in Asia, North Africa, Europe and North America. As an emerging economy with strong potential of being advanced, proportionately high youth population exudes hope for the future in terms of reliable supply of human capital to boost industrialisation and information and communications technology (ICT) as well as effective management of the economy.

Some experts were of the opinion that the respective rates of ageing populations in China, Japan; and in many European countries provide India with an unprecedented advantage that could propel her economy to higher echelons. It is believed the young Indian population has the potential to contribute additional 2% to GDP growth rate. These positive economic attributes notwithstanding, the quality of life among Indian youth in the urban and suburban areas remains a strong challenge to leadership and youth development experts in the country.

A report shared by Shivakumar (2013) revealed about one-fifth of the Indian urban population lived on less than a dollar a day. However, it is barely eight years after release of the report shared in Shivakumar (2013).

Therefore, it is hoped recent improvements in general performance of the Indian economy (controlling for the devastating impact of COVID-19) would reflect on policies and programmes rolled out to improve the lot of the teeming youth who remain the beacon of hope for India’s economy in the medium- and long-term.

Dr. Colin Tukuitonga, Director-General of the Pacific Community (as cited in the Commonwealth, 2016b) stressed, youth-centred policies in the Pacific region must lay premium on services-provision for the marginalised; and strengthening the under-served to facilitate self-navigation into the immediate and distant future. However, success of the foregoing is predicated on a number of factors. To this end, Dr. Tukuitonga (as cited in the Commonwealth, 2016b) observed, smart investment would be required to advance the status of young people in the Pacific region.

To ensure outcomes of programmes for youth development across the development agenda are well-integrated, he emphasised the need for the smart investment to be resourceful and strategic. That is, the investment must be adequately measured and tailored to address current and emerging challenges that threaten effective youth development in the region.

Figure 1: Top 8 Countries with Largest Population of Young People

Source: UNFPA (As cited in Economic Times, 2014)

Further, decisions on youth development must be made based on strategic information; and on statistical and analytical evidence to assure accuracy and near-precision of outcomes.

It is worth-noting the recommended measures could be replicated in other global regions where meaningful implementation of youth development policies remains a strong challenge. To this end, it is hoped findings from the current research would prove useful to policymakers in various economies across the globe.

UNFPA (n.d.) argued, generally, youthful stage remains the healthiest period in the lives of individuals. However, variations in the levels of developed and improved health structures and facilities in different economies affect life span of the youth.

For instance, report released by the United Nations-DESA Expert Group’s meeting on adolescents (as cited in UNFPA, n.d.) revealed, the rate of 15-year-olds who barely survive their 25th birthday in regions with advanced economic development structures, Western and Eastern Asia, and Northern Africa, is 1% or less.

Conversely, mortality rates for the same category of young people in other regions were found to be quite staggering: in Sub-Saharan Africa, mortality rate for 15-year-olds before their 25th birthday was found to be four times higher; and twice as high in South Asia.

Factors such as improved medical and health facilities account for high survival rate among youth in advanced economies and in the other afore-mentioned regions while limited health facilities account for low survival rate among youth in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

This notwithstanding, there are common causative factors for deaths among the youth population globally. Some of these factors as identified by Patton et al. (as cited in UNFPA, n.d.) could be grouped into two. These include non-communicable diseases and communicable diseases.

Examples of non-communicable diseases include behavioural challenges such as unprotected and risky sex leading to unplanned or early pregnancy, self-inflicting harm, violence, fatalities recorded through motor vehicle accidents, alcohol in-take, and use of tobacco, among others. Communicable diseases that negatively impact on the lifespan of young people include lower respiratory-tract infection, HIV/AIDS, and tuberculosis.

The United Nations Millennium Development Goal (MDG) Report for 2012 on demographic and health surveys (as cited in UNFPA, n.d.) revealed steady decline in birth rate among adolescents in all global regions since 1990. This notwithstanding, the rate remained comparatively high in developing than developed or advanced economies. For instance, in the year 2000, the rate of births among adolescents aged between 15 and 19 years in advanced countries stood at 23.4% per 1,000 women. However, the rate was more than double in developing countries (52.3% per 1,000 women) during the period.

Further statistical results from demographic and health surveys in 2008 showed birth rate among adolescents remained high in Africa at one hundred and one (101) births per one thousand women between the ages of 15 and 19 years. Respective adolescent birth rates in other regions during the same period were Latin America and the Caribbean: seventy-three (73) births per 1,000 women; and South Asia: seventy-seven (77) births per 1,000 women between ages 15 and 19 years.

Dovetailing the issue of high birth rate among adolescents in global regions with marriage among young women between ages 20 and 24 years is the high rate of early marriage among young women before age 15 years. Report of the Secretary-General on Adolescents and Youth in 2012 (as cited in UNFPA, n.d.) revealed striking data on demographic and health surveys including interviews conducted in eighty (80) countries since 2005.

The conventional minimum age at marriage with parental consent in many countries is 15 or 16 years. However, many countries in which this convention apply were found to be in violation of the norm; the proportion of young women who had married before age 15 was high in many countries.

In some countries, no minimum age was stipulated for women to marry with consent of their parents. The report revealed, the percentage of women who had married before age 15 years varied significantly.

Data gathered from twenty-three (23) of the 80 sampled countries indicated at least 10% of women between ages 20 and 24 years got married before age 15 years during the research period. Included in the 23 countries were sixteen (16) selected from Africa; five (5) from Asia and the Pacific; and two (2) from Latin America and the Caribbean.

Matrix of Global Youth Development

Consistent with UNFPA (n.d.), the Commonwealth (2016a&b) noted, youth population across the globe was at its all-time high with 1.8 billion people estimated to be in the 15 – 29 years’ category, with about 87% living in developing countries.

The Commonwealth (2016b) described the current youth population as “Generation Hope” (para. 1). However, the conclusion drawn on major new index and report (as cited in the Commonwealth, 2016b) lamented on how teething factors such as unequal access to health and education, lack of political influence and widespread joblessness are impacting negatively on the generation’s ability to contribute its quota, meaningfully, towards prosperous, happy and healthy future.

As part of efforts and measures aimed at reminding member-countries and others about the influential role of young people in the national development agenda, the Commonwealth Secretariat developed the Global Youth Development Index (GYDI). These metrics rank one hundred and eighty-three (183) countries based on the prospects of young people in the areas of health, employment, academic or education, politics; and civic education. Dr. Selim Jahan, Director of the Human Development Report Office of UNDP (as cited in the Commonwealth, 2016b) argued, introduction and implementation of the youth development index (YDI) by the Commonwealth Secretariat was timely to fill an important void in the development landscape at the global level.

Dr. Jahan (as cited in the Commonwealth, 2016a) was of the firm conviction that functionality of the youth development index would affirm the relevance of gathering more data on development at both national and sub-national levels. To assure effective utilisation, Dr. Jahan (as cited in the Commonwealth, 2016b) suggested the need for disaggregation of the sampled data by income, age and gender.

The global youth development index draws on data from multiple sources; and measures eighteen (18) indicators. These include voter engagement, financial inclusion, mental disorder, literacy rates, among other important indicators. Scores from the global youth development index help to identify countries with improved institutional and physical structures to support youth development; and those that are lagging behind. Thus, GYDI helps low-scoring countries to up their respective games in the area of effective youth development policy formulation and implementation.

The global youth development index report (as cited in the Commonwealth, 2016a&b) revealed, eight of the top ten best-performing countries were in Europe; the other two included Australia (Oceania) and Japan (Asia). Chronologically, the top ten countries in the 2016 rankings included Germany, Denmark, Australia, Switzerland, United Kingdom, Netherlands, Austria, Luxembourg, Portugal and Japan. The 2016 GYDI rankings included 49 of the 53 Commonwealth member-countries.

Table 2: Top 10 Commonwealth Member Countries in GYDI

Global Ranking Commonwealth Ranking Country
3rd 1st Australia
5th 2nd United Kingdom
11th 3rd New Zealand
14th 4th Canada
20th 5th Malta
28th 6th Barbados
31st 7th Brunei
31st 8th Sri Lanka
34th 9th Malaysia
38th 10th Cyprus

Data source: The Commonwealth, 2016

Data in Table 2 depict the performance of selected countries in the global youth development index at the world and Commonwealth levels in 2016. Data in the table suggest youth development policies in Australia during the period facilitated her respective third and first rankings at the global and Commonwealth levels. Youth development indices in Canada were sufficient to assure the country’s respective 14th and 4th rankings at the world and Commonwealth levels. The respective rankings of Cyprus at the Commonwealth (10th) and global (38th) levels were indicative of the country’s strong commitment to youth development.

Conversely, the ten least-performing countries in the index were in Sub-Saharan Africa, including Zambia and Mozambique. Within the Sub-Saharan Africa region, Ghana ranked 117th, ahead of Liberia (119th), Seychelles (123rd) and Kenya (125th). However, Ghana ranked behind Mauritius (69th) during the period (Commonwealth, 2016a).

Nonetheless, Dr. Joseph Muscat, Prime Minister of Malta and Chair-in-Office of the Commonwealth (as cited in the Commonwealth, 2016b) noted, effective youth development in low-income economies was not far-fetched; through concerted efforts of leadership and good governance, young people could be encouraged to participate effectively in socio-economic and political lives of their respective countries.

Further, the onus lies on leadership to institute the requisite measures to ensure access to quality health and nutrition; quality training and education; improved well-being; and to promote sexual and mental health.

Comparative analysis of the global youth development index at the regional levels revealed strongest performance by North America, followed by Europe and Asia-Pacific respectively. The rest included South America, Central America and the Caribbean, Russia and Eurasia, Middle East and North Africa (MENA); and South Asia. Sub-Saharan Africa concluded the regional rankings.

In terms of youth literacy and secondary enrolment rates, North America and Europe remained the regions with the highest rates (almost 100%), followed by South America, Russia and Eurasia, Central America and the Caribbean, and Asia-Pacific. South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa account for over 40% of the global youth population. However, the average scores of these regions in the Education category were below the global average during the period (Commonwealth, 2016a).

In spite of the foregoing, Sub-Saharan Africa recorded the highest improvement over a five-year period (2010 through 2015), followed by Asia-Pacific, Central America and the Caribbean, and Europe respectively. A common threat identified in both advanced and developing countries is the issue of unemployment among the youth population.

The report suggested, the ratio of youth to adult unemployment hovers around 2:1. That is, the proportion of youth population that remains unemployed is likely to be at least twice as the proportion of unemployed adult population. Further, young women were found to be more at a disadvantage than their male counterparts; young men are more likely to have access to digital technology, financial services, health and education than young women (Commonwealth, 2016a&b).

The report revealed increasing rate of volunteerism, protests and digital activism among young people to the neglect of strong and formal political activism. The latter is attributed to growing frustrations and unmet aspirations among young people. Young men and women are believed to be key actors in peace-building at various levels of the social strata. Yet, the recent spike of extremism is indicative of how young men and women suffer disproportionately as victims of violent crime (Commonwealth, 2016a&b).

The global youth development index report (as cited in the Commonwealth, 2016b) identified youth-bulge as gaining prominence in many of the sampled economies. For many of the sampled economies, young adults and adolescents constituted about one-third of their respective populations.

The surge in youth population was described by some experts as useful to the provision of demographic dividend for the implied countries. Ceteris paribus, youth-bulge assures significant contribution of young people to national, regional and global economic growth and well-being.

Nonetheless, strict birth and population controls in some jurisdictions are indicative of large ageing population and small population of young people in the next decades. The implication is fewer young people may be compelled to provide financial and social support for a large older population. The global youth development index report was published a year after global leaders at the United Nations firmed-up an agreement on 17 new world goals for sustainable development, including the need to end inequality and extreme poverty; and to tackle climate change head-on.

The Commonwealth Secretary-General, Rt. Hon. Patricia Scotland (as cited in the Commonwealth, 2016b), believed the global youth development index underscores the need for young people to be engaged and empowered through elected governments and their respective departments; and agents responsible for youth development and growth.

In other words, the index calls on global leaders to act swiftly on issues related to young people since they remain precious and invaluable assets to their respective economies and the world. The target date for the United Nations’ 17 new sustainable development goals is 2030.

However, Rt. Hon. Scotland (as cited in the Commonwealth, 2016b) argued, various countries’ ability to meet the target date (2030) is contingent on active and unflinching support of youth leaders.

Stated differently, active youth participation in socio-economic and political governance is pivotal to achievement of the sustainable development goals. The global average youth development score in 2016 was 0.616 or 6.16%. This was slightly higher than the Commonwealth average of 0.606 (6.06%). However, overall, the index revealed average gains in youth development among Commonwealth member countries were higher than the world average (Commonwealth, 2016b).

As stated earlier, the global young adults and adolescent population constitutes generation hope. This generation has two unique features: vast capabilities and high aspirations. Members of generation hope aspire to be useful and productive citizens. However, enormous obstacles and challenges prevent them from realising their potential.

To reverse the trend, Rt. Hon. Scotland (as cited in the Commonwealth, 2016b), re-echoed the need for global leaders to prioritise investment in digital skills, health and education for young people while making conscious efforts to improve individual fulfillment, enhance participation; and creating job opportunities to minimise the rate of joblessness.

The foregoing statement was corroborated by Achaleke Leke (as cited in the Commonwealth, 2016b) when he underlined significance of the index in the development of young people, especially in developing countries. Achaleke Leke (as cited in the Commonwealth, 2016b) noted, the index emphasises the need for global leaders to add premium to investment in youth policies and development programmes, so they could be nurtured to become productive and peaceful citizens; and to become effective leaders and innovators.

Achaleke Christian Leke, the young Cameroonian peace activist, was adjudged the Commonwealth Young Person of the Year in 2016 (Commonwealth, 2016b). In 2018, Mr. Leke was named winner of the Luxembourg Peace Price for his role as Outstanding Youth Peacemaker.

He was recognised for his unique role in initiating and promoting peace. In addition to winning the coveted World Peace Forum and Schengen Peace Foundation award in 2018, Mr. Leke’s pre-eminent efforts and initiatives towards brokering peace attracted the attention of top officials at the Commonwealth Secretariat.

He serves as the Pan-Commonwealth Co-ordinator of the Commonwealth Youth Peace Ambassadors Network; works with young people within the Commonwealth and in state institutions with the sole aim of advocating for; and championing the role of young people in peace-building (Commonwealth, 2019).


The United Nations Population Fund (as cited in Economic Times, 2014) was hopeful of developing economies with large population of young people deriving some demographic dividends, including increased economic output and growth. However, realisation of the foregoing hinges on leaders’ ability to protect young people’s rights; and to invest massively in their health and education.

Generation of demographic dividend may be easy when the dependent population is smaller than the working population. The Member of Parliament for Lanark and Hamilton East in the United Kingdom, Hon. Angela Crawley (as cited in the Commonwealth, 2016b), reminded all institutions of power of the need to recognise the potentials of and value that young people could transfer to elected office. She asserted this category of people may be young.

However, they are engaged and not oblivious of the challenges in their immediate and distant environment. Further, they are mindful of the remedial measures required to address those challenges. She noted, now is the time for the voices of young people to be heard clearly and loudly. As of 2014, there were over 600 million adolescent girls around the world with aspirations for the future; and specific needs and challenges. The evidence buttresses the need for implementation of youth development programmes in low-index-scoring countries to be expedited to assure the achievement of positive demographic dividend.

Author’s Note

The above write-up was extracted from recent Publication on “Youth entrepreneurship: Essential tool for socio-economic development and growth” by Ashley, Tufuor, Obeng, Agbenuvor and Ackah (2024) in the International Journal of Business and Management (IJBM). DOI No.: 10.24940/theijbm/2024/v12/i2/BM2402-015

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