Yang Hongwei is an ant. Not in body but in spirit. Each morning, the hardworking college graduate joins a swarm of others like him who suffer the crowded bus ride from his low-income neighborhood to the heart of Beijing. There, he toils the day away in his low-wage job, then joins the stream of recent grads making their way back to cramped quarters.
“I hope I can leave soon; the sooner the better, but that needs money,” he told the IPS News Agency in a 2010 interview. Originally from Heilongjiang province in China’s northeastern tip, Yang gave himself three more years in the big city to work his way into a job that could provide him a better life. “If I can’t improve my situation, I will return to my hometown.”
Dubbed “ant tribes” in a book by the same name by political scientist Lian Si, clusters of frustrated young people such as Yang can be found scattered throughout China’s big cities. They migrate to urban areas from their rural villages, hoping to find good jobs that will allow them to start families. More often, they find disappointment.
This scenario, which plays out not just in
China but across the Asia Pacific, can present a challenge for governments and security forces, experts say. Countries that find themselves unprepared for a bulge in the urban youth population experience a strain on their infrastructure and resources. Lack of jobs and educational opportunities can lead to frustration, and young people living in squalor may turn to criminal enterprises and extremist activities to survive, researchers say.
“In many developing countries, urban
centers offer better social and economic opportunities for young people than rural areas do,” according to a policy research working paper from the World Bank. “But if governments fail to provide opportunities and services to a growing urban population, increased grievances may arise, fueling protest and possibly also political violence. A particular security concern has been that disenfranchised and economically and socially excluded urban youth may engage in violent activities, whether ‘criminal’ or ‘political.’ ”
In countries with explosive youth populations and few employment options, desperate job seekers also look beyond their borders in search of opportunity. For those who can’t afford to migrate legally, illicit traffickers provide a way out. Young workers flow through the same routes that are used to smuggle arms and drugs across the region, experts say.
That type of migration “creates a lot of transnational problems,” Miemie Byrd, associate professor at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, told FORUM. “They become exploited; they become vulnerable, because they are doing it illegally.”
Making it work
Despite the challenges that arise with expanding urban youth populations, countries can benefit from a bulge. From 1965 to 1990, for example, the Asian “Tigers” (Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan) experienced an economic boom due in part to rapid growth in the young working population, according to Finance & Development, a magazine published by the International Monetary Fund. The Tigers’ attention to education systems, job creation and trade policies helped these countries capitalize on their large youth demographic.
“It goes back to good governance,” explained Byrd, who has studied youth unemployment. “If the government is not able to capitalize on it and come up with effective policies to create jobs and provide livelihoods and opportunities for these young people — specifically young men — then it could turn from an opportunity into a nightmare.”
A perilous gap
The nightmare of too many disenfranchised young men has been exacerbated in some places by the decline in the number of young women. In cultures that favor boys over girls, such as those dominant in China and India, female infanticide and sex-selective abortions have led to gender imbalances with serious implications, experts contend.
Societies with pronounced gaps between the male and female populations “breed chronic violence and persistent social disorder and corruption,” Valerie M. Hudson and Andrea M. den Boer wrote in the book Bare Branches: The Security Implications of Asia’s Surplus Male Population. Large groups of young men with few job and family options turn to drug and arms trafficking, kidnapping, sex trafficking and organized crime to support themselves, researchers say. Dissatisfaction with living and working conditions can also lead to disruptive protests and demonstrations.
To address immediate concerns about the surplus men, countries should work to improve their economic outlook, experts suggest. Large infrastructure projects that provide jobs and social insurance programs for the unemployed are two options, Hudson and den Boer wrote.
The overarching concern, though, is the need for more women, experts say. To that end, both China and India have banned sex-selective abortions, and public education campaigns strive to change the cultural stigma of having female children. Governments and nongovernmental groups have implemented incentive programs to encourage families to value girls.
Raising the status of women and balancing the gender pools are important for the stability of such societies, experts say. “To understand gender imbalance, think of society as a bird with two wings. We cannot have one wing be much smaller and far less developed if we want the bird to take flight and reach great heights,” Vasu Mohan, deputy director for Europe and Asia for the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, told FORUM.
“A big disaster”
Back in the “ant tribes” of Beijing, many young workers dream of starting a family, but more than 90 percent are single, political scientist Lian estimated in his book. For Yang, the young worker from Heilongjiang province, financial hardships leave him unable to even begin wooing a young woman. “How dare I date a girl? That costs,” Yang told IPS.
As frustration among the youth mounts in crowded urban centers throughout Asia, experts grow more concerned.
“Ants are smart,” Lian told The Christian Science Monitor newspaper. “They are relatively weak individually, but if you don’t pay attention to them, they can cause a big disaster. There is a Chinese saying that a 10,000 mile dam can be breached by a swarm of ants.”