Each country’s protests differ in detail. But recent upheavals do appear to share one key factor: youth. In most cases, younger people are at the forefront of calls for change. The uprising that unexpectedly swept away Sudan’s ancien regime this year was essentially generational in nature.
In one sense, this is unsurprising. Wordsworth expressed the eternal appeal of revolt for the young in The Prelude, a poem applauding the French Revolution. “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very Heaven!” he declared. Wordsworth was 19 years old when the Bastille was stormed.
Yet while younger people, in any era, are predisposed to shake up the established order, extreme demographic, social and political imbalances are intensifying present-day pressures. It is as if the unprecedented environmental traumas experienced by the natural world are being matched by similarly exceptional stresses in human society.
There are more young people than ever before. About 41% of the global population of 7.7 billion is aged 24 or under. In Africa, 41% is under 15. In Asia and Latin America (where 65% of the world’s people live), it’s 25%. In developed countries, imbalances tilt the other way. While 16% of Europeans are under 15, about 18%, double the world average, are over 65.
Most of these young people have reached, or will reach, adulthood in a world scarred by the 2008 financial crash. Recession, stagnant or falling living standards, and austerity programmes delivered from on high have shaped their experience. As a result, many current protests are rooted in shared grievances about economic inequality and jobs. InTunisia, birthplace of the failed 2011 Arab spring, and more recently in neighbouring Algeria, street protests were led by unemployed young people and students angry about price and tax rises – and, more broadly, about broken reform promises. Chile and Iraq faced similar upheavals last week.