Demographers have for some time been talking about the ‘new’ global demographic trends. Roughly, these trends are falling fertility and falling mortality rates. Their main implications for society are well known: ageing populations and slower or negative population growth (Sandell, 2004). There are also political and economic implications, such as how to maintain pensions when the labour force is shrinking and the number of people in retirement age is increasing rapidly. Health services and education are also affected by changes in the population’s age structure. Last but not least, the supply of labour is shrinking rapidly. This makes increased productivity a necessity if the goal is to preserve the current level of economic performance. In sum, demographic changes are of such magnitude that they are likely to change the conditions for economic growth and welfare, possibly to the worse, if States do not adjust to the new demographic reality fast enough.

What is somewhat misleading is that since the trends are labelled as global, and are therefore present in both rich and poor countries world-wide, we tend to generalize too much about how they can come to affect individual countries and regions. Much of the western debate about the consequences of the demographic transition affords a disproportionate amount of attention to the ‘luxurious’ welfare problems described above. These problems inherently pertain to developed countries, even in the event of developing countries’ demographical problems being exactly the same.

That is, although developing countries are facing the same demographic transition, it is much less clear how the demographic transition will unfold for them and how it will eventually come to affect them (Reher, 2004). Nor has the question been satisfactorily explained of how demographic changes in developing countries could come to affect developed countries (see McNicoll, 1984).

This paper discusses the general nature of current demographic trends. The purpose is to offer a more nuanced view of part of the world’s population development. In particular, I will show that the demographic transition, while similar in developed and developing countries, gives rise to an emerging demographic cleavage between developed and developing countries. It is not unlikely that this emerging cleavage could change the conditions for international relations in very substantial ways, and possibly give way to a new world order.

The focus of this paper is on demographic changes in the Mediterranean region. I shall contrast demographic developments on both the southern and northern shores of the Mediterranean Sea. The countries included on the European side, defined here as Southern Europe, are France, Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain. The countries constituting North Africa are Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunis.

The purpose of the comparison is to show how similar demographic trends in North Africa and in Southern Europe give rise to sometimes very different general developments. These opposite developments are, in turn, likely to affect the general performance (political and economic) of the countries in the region. They could be beneficial if used to our advantage; if ignored, they are potentially dangerous and could be a source of conflict and tension in the region.

The Demographic Transition in the Mediterranean Region: Main Components

The new global demographic trends became visible in the Mediterranean region in the 1960s and 1970s when total fertility rates very suddenly started to decline rapidly on both shores of the Mediterranean Sea. That is, declining fertility levels are a universal phenomenon in the region, in so far as the phenomenon is occurring at roughly the same time. However, focusing on the timing alone prevents us from seeing important features concerning this phenomenon.

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Figure 1[1] show the development of the total fertility rates (the number of children per woman; see left-hand y-axis) on the southern and northern shores of the Mediterranean Sea. We can see that the peak in fertility occurs at roughly the same time (1965-70). The important difference between the two sub-regions is the magnitude of fertility at the onset of the demographic transition. In Southern Europe the total fertility rate peaks at 2.7 children per woman in the period 1965-70. In North Africa it peaks at 7.08 children per woman in the same period. It is easy to see that by 2005, in absolute terms, the drop in fertility in North Africa exceeds that of Southern Europe by a factor of 4. Thus, it is tempting to conclude that North Africa has experienced the most dramatic changes in the period 1965 to 2005.

If we analyse the relative changes instead, a different pattern emerges (see right-hand y-axis). Southern Europe’s fertility rate fell at a faster rate than did northern Africa’s. This implies a faster advance of the demographic transition in Europe than in North Africa. Another find when analysing the relative changes is that from around 2005 Southern Europe should move on to the next phase of the demographic transition, whereby the total fertility rate stabilises below the replacement level (2.1 children per woman), slightly higher than its minimum level. In northern Africa the trend is still towards even lower fertility rates. This development will continue at least until around 2030 if the UN’s forecasts prove to be accurate.

Another very important item of information revealed by Figure 1 is that it is only in Southern Europe that total fertility levels have so far fallen below the replacement level. This happened relatively soon after the start of the demographic transition (around 1980). If the UN’s medium scenario forecast is reasonably accurate, North Africa is not expected to experience fertility rates below the replacement level until the end of the forecasted period, ie, around 2040-50. Southern Europe, on the other hand, will experience below-replacement fertility levels for the remaining part of the forecasted period. As we shall soon see, this difference has important, but very different, implications for population growth in the two sub-regions.

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To gain a proper understanding of the demographic transition’s effect on population developments in the Mediterranean region, in addition to information about developments in fertility rates, we must add information about the development of mortality rates. Figure 2 shows the development of infant mortality per thousand births and the total mortality rate per 1000 people on both shores of the Mediterranean Sea. The developments in infant mortality are impressive (see left hand y-axis). Since 1990 infant mortality in Europe has been reduced to a minimum from having been above 50 infant deaths per thousand births as late as the 1960s. In North Africa the trend is even more impressive. Infant deaths have fallen from close to 200 infant deaths per thousand births in the late 1950s to around 50 in 2005. This level is still high compared with Europe, but the difference between the two regions is expected to be almost erased by the end of the period.

The falling infant mortality rate in North Africa is the principal reason for the sharp decline in total mortality rates in North Africa (see right hand y-axis), particularly up until the 1980s.

In Europe the trend is somewhat different. Total mortality rates have been more or less constant since the 1950s, despite that infant mortality levels continued declining. The reason for this is that the largest improvements in infant mortality took place before 1950 in Southern Europe. Hence, the effect of continued decline in infant mortality on total mortality is small. From 2005 to the end of the observation period total mortality should rise significantly in Southern Europe. The rise in total mortality rates is due to a more advanced ageing process in Southern Europe.

However, the most important finding as regards mortality is that the rate in North Africa has been below that of Europe since the 1990s. Furthermore, North African mortality rates should be significantly lower than in Southern Europe for the entire period under consideration.

What are the consequences of the differences in mortality and fertility trends just described? Southern Europe has, as we have seen, experienced and continues to experience below-replacement fertility and rising mortality rates. Both factors have negative implications for population growth. When present at the same time the result is inevitably population decline in the near future[2]. North Africa on the other hand, while clearly experiencing declining fertility rates, is not expected to see below-replacement fertility until the middle of this century. In fact, despite the recent fall in fertility North Africa still has a total fertility rate that exceeds the level at which Europe peaked in 1965. Above-replacement fertility levels always imply population growth. If accompanied by falling mortality rates population growth is explosive.

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This implies that population growth is still very significant in North Africa, and that we can expect growth to continue to be significant for a large part of this century. In contrast, Southern Europe is likely to face a situation of substantial population decline. The differences in fertility and mortality rates between the northern and southern shores of the Mediterranean and the subsequent effect these trends have on population growth should result in an important population gravity shift in the region.

Figure 3 shows the development of the size of the two sub-regions’ populations. Judging by the slope of the increase, the speed of North African population growth is now approaching its historical zenith. However, and more importantly, in 1950, Southern Europe’s population was three times the size of North Africa’s. Today, Southern Europe’s population is still larger than North Africa’s, but the difference is quickly approaching a minimum. By the end of the period (2050), and provided that the UN’s medium forecast is reasonably valid, North Africa’s population should exceed Southern Europe’s by close to 100 million people. This is indeed a dramatic change brought about by the demographic transition. It looks even more dramatic if we compare individual countries.

Table 1.
Population in Millions
* Forecast UN Medium VariantSource: UN World Population Prospects 2002 Revision.

Table 1 compares the populations of Morocco and Spain at four different points in time. As the table shows, Morocco’s population was less than 10 million in 1950, while Spain’s was close to 30 million. Current forecasts indicate that from 2025 Morocco’s population will exceed Spain’s. To put this growth into perspective, if Spain were to have enjoyed the same relative increase in the period 1950-2005, it would have close to 100 million inhabitants in 2005 instead of 41.2 million. Thus, Morocco’s past population growth has been spectacular, with an increase of more than 22 million in only 50 years.

The rapid population increase in North Africa and the imminent population decline in Southern Europe are producing a demographic paradigm shift in the region. I shall now turn to some of the socio-economic consequences that should appear as we approach this shift.

Similar Trends but Different Demographic Realities

A more general implication of the difference in magnitude of major demographic indicators such as fertility and mortality rates is that while all countries in the region are experiencing the same general population trends, they are each facing very different demographic realities at any given point in time (Keyfitz 1980). Different demographic realities in turn give rise to different political responses which can alter the conditions for international relations and change the security outlook for both countries and entire regions (McNicoll 1984, Homer-Dixon 1991).

What type of demographic realities are rapid demographic change and rapid population growth in North Africa likely to bring about? There are multiple and sometimes contradictory answers to this question (McNicoll 1984).

Population Growth and Urbanization

Perhaps one of the most important processes affected by population growth, particularly rapid population growth, is urbanization. As a phenomenon, urbanization is brought about by economic and political factors. However, the speed of the urbanization process is to a large extent governed by the demographic factors discussed in the first part of this paper (Lowry 1990).

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Traditionally, North African states have been rural states, with the majority of the population living in the countryside. This is not the case in Southern Europe where the majority of the population has been residing in urban areas since the 1950s (Lowry 1990). Figure 4 confirms this impression. However, the same figure also reveals some important changes in their processes of urbanization.

Both shores have seen increased urbanization ratios throughout the period up until 2005, and urbanization is expected to continue for the entire period, but with one important difference: North Africa has a much faster relative urbanization rate than Southern Europe, while its starting point was far below the European level.

Breaking down population growth rates to mirror population growth in rural and urban areas adds information to our understanding of current and past changes in the regions’ spatial population processes. Both North Africa and Southern Europe experienced more or less constant total population growth for the period 1950-80, although at different magnitudes (see the solid line in Figure 4’s left hand y-axis).

In North Africa, particularly at the beginning of the period, the speed of urban population growth was significantly greater that that of either total or rural growth. The extreme urban growth rate of between 2 to 1 percent above the total growth rate is a strong indication that there has been very significant rural-to-urban migration topped by a high natural increase in urban areas. However, despite a very significant movement from the countryside to urban areas, population growth has been sufficiently strong in North Africa’s rural areas to offset the depopulation of the countryside. Thus, both rural and urban areas are much more populous now than they were fifty years ago.

To some extent the general trend in Southern Europe is similar to that in North Africa. The main difference between the two sub-regions is that in Southern Europe rural population growth is negative for the entire period. That is, the countryside of Southern Europe is subject to a serious depopulation process. The depopulation of rural areas in Southern Europe was particularly significant in the period before the 1970s, which is reflected in the corresponding negative and positive slopes in rural and urban growth rates, respectively, in this particular period.

Both regions should see a second wave of urbanization as they enter the 21st century. In Europe the second wave should be less the result of movement from rural to urban areas and more a question of natural increase or, rather, lack of natural increase in rural areas. The price of earlier depopulation is that those who move are typically younger people in fertile age, leaving only the elderly behind. This effectively prevents a natural increase in rural areas in the future. In contrast, North Africa should see an accelerating depopulation process involving rural to urban movement similar to that experienced in Southern Europe in the 1970s and 1980s, resulting in continued higher urban over total growth rate in the region.

No doubt, the most important finding to be drawn from Figure 4 is that North African society has seen a complete transformation from being rural to becoming urban in less than one generation. Rapid urbanization, or population redistribution as seen in North Africa, has significant economic and political consequences for society (McNicoll 1984, Lowry 1990). When a society changes from being predominantly rural to being largely urban, the country’s institutional arrangements are also in flux. In the case of North Africa, the region is changing from a rural economy to an industrial and service-oriented economy (Bloom and Freeman 1986). In other words, North African countries are not only experiencing a demographic transition, they also have to cope with a large-scale economic transition. History has shown that an economic transition, particularly industrialization, is apt to generate conflict between the winners and losers in the new order (Kuznets 1973, Goldstone 1986). In some countries it has even led to rebellion and civil war (Kuznets 1973). Let us not forget that when Europe made the transition from being a rural to an urban society in the first half of the past century there were two World Wars fought on the European mainland. Urbanization was unlikely to have been the cause of these tragedies in Europe’s history, but it cannot be ruled out that rapid urbanization at the time was a contributory factor.

The change from a rural to an urban society does not have to be problematic, but the chances are that it is. The most obvious problem facing countries involved in this type of transition is to be able to make ends meet in terms of, for instance, food production. Hence, to keep up with the speedy increase of the urban population, agriculture has to become more effective. Failing to increase agricultural productivity means that an increasing share of the food supply has to come from expensive food imports (Homer-Dixon 1991). It is not unlikely for domestic efforts to satisfy food demand to lead to the degradation of the land available for cultivation and lead to greater food shortages, with more imports as a result. The problem will become even more serious when North Africa starts to experience a depopulation of the countryside in the first half of this century. More resources dedicated to food imports means that investments in other areas will suffer.

Other resource-related problems are likely to emerge as urbanization advances. With urban population growing at a speed above 2 % in the next few decades and at 1%-1.5 % above total growth, urban areas are at risk of expanding at a faster rate than the government’s economic and administrative capacity to ensure law enforcement. If this occurs it cannot be ruled out that the potential for disorder could rise dramatically (Goldstone 1986).

There are also important interaction effects between industrialization and the speed of urbanization. Industrialization requires city folk to satisfy the demand for labour as the economy changes its focus from agriculture to industry and services. Once this demand becomes manifest and urbanization is set in motion, there is a risk that the speed of urbanization overtakes the speed of industrialization. There are several reasons why this is likely to happen. Wages are usually higher in the services and industry sectors than in the agricultural sector, and services and education are usually better than in urban areas. Hence, urban areas are simply more attractive than rural areas, thereby further boosting the speed of urbanization (Lowry 1990). Another reason is that the agricultural sector is incapable of absorbing a population increase over a certain level due to the scarcity of land available for cultivation. When this happens people in the countryside are forced to move to urban areas. If and when the speed of urbanization overtakes the speed of industrialization the informal sector of the economy grows disproportionately (Bloom and Freeman 1986). This is a blow to a state’s fiscal capacity and makes it more difficult for the government to accommodate the rapid increase in urban population.

When the speed of urbanization exceeds either the speed of economic transition or the speed at which the government accommodates urban growth, the result is ‘over-urbanization’ (Lowry 1990). Over-urbanization usually leads to discontent and tension in urban areas as well as to political protest. The urban context facilitates mass movement and collective action (Fischer 1982). Researchers studying these topics have offered empirical evidence for a correlation between rapid urban population growth and the incidence of political protest (Auvinen 1997).

Population Growth and the Rise of the Younger Generations

Rapid population growth gives rise to an increasing supply of younger workers. A younger workforce is usually synonymous with a high level of human capital: younger people tend to be better educated than other categories of the workforce as they have received their education more recently than older persons in the active population and, furthermore, the quality of education tends to improve over time. Business benefits from this relationship, and the level of entrepreneurship is higher when younger people dominate the labour market. In short, an increasing supply of younger labour is usually assumed to have positive effects on a country’s economic performance. However, in poorer economies a predominantly younger workforce could become a social challenge instead of a socio-economic asset, particularly at times of very rapid population growth and fast phased urbanization of the kind described in the previous section.

Cincotta et al. (2002) have suggested that under certain circumstances a large proportion of young people in the population can be associated with the outbreak of political violence and warfare. The reason for this is that at times of population growth and steady urbanization, both state institutions and the educational system find it difficult to accommodate demographic changes due to lack of resources. Similarly, the labour markets of weaker economies simply cannot create new jobs at the same rates at which the young population grows. The result is excess unemployment among the younger generations and a great deal of frustration in this population category. When there are ‘too many young men with not enough to do…’ in developing countries, historical data indicate a higher incidence of political violence and even warfare (Cincotta et al. 2002).

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Cincotta et al. argue that in a historical perspective the incidence of increased political violence and warfare becomes prominent when the proportion of young people, ie, those aged between 15 and 29, is over 40 % of the adult population (those aged 15 and above).

Figure 5 shows the development of the young population relative to the total adult population, according to the above definition, in North Africa and in Europe. As we can see, historically, North African countries fall well within the range whereby the risk for political violence and armed conflict is alleged to be high. We know that the region has seen a fair share of tension in the past, and it cannot be excluded that demographic factors are part of the explanation to the turbulence seen in the past in this region.

However, Figure 5 also shows that there are improvements ahead in this regard. Within the next ten years the share of the young population should drop below the 40 % threshold for the first time. Cincotta et al.’s findings indicate that this decline, in a historical context, should tend to coincide with major state reforms and the settlement of unresolved border issues.

This could be an indication that the demographic pressure posed by the younger population is fading in this region, and that the area is heading towards a more stable political development whereby unresolved conflicts might finally be settled. Nevertheless, the share of young people is expected to remain above the 40 % threshold for a further ten years. That is, the large share that young adults represent in the North African population should still be notable and thus capable of causing a great deal of stress on the region’s political systems, particularly if the labour market fails to absorb it and economic growth is absent in the years to come.

Population Growth and the Labour Market

By far the most important challenge ahead for dealing with the demographic and economic transition is to successfully absorb the explosive growth of the working-age population. The increase in the population means that each new generation outnumbers the preceding one. The greater the growth rate the larger is the difference in size between the two generations. Rising birth rates have a lagged effect on the labour market. It takes around twenty years for each new cohort to reach an active age. Thus, the North African labour market is currently faced with the problem of absorbing the birth cohorts born around 1985. In 1985 North Africa’s total fertility rate stood at six children per woman compared with around three today.

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As the new and larger birth cohorts reach an economically active age, the country has to develop its capacity to absorb the increase. Figure 6 illustrates the magnitude of the problem in North Africa and contrasts it with simultaneous developments in Southern Europe. The focus on Figure 6 is on labour force turnover rates, ie, the number of people entering active age (in this case those turning 20-24 in the next five-year period) minus the people exiting active age naturally (in this case those turning 65-69 in the next five years).

Figure 6 shows some impressive patterns of change. North African countries have experienced an uninterrupted increase in the number of people entering active age in each five-year period. The increase peaks between 2005 and 2010. Those turning 20 will exceed the people turning 65 by approximately 14 million people in North Africa. Thereafter the net increase should stabilise at around 10 million people in each five-year period and after 2030 the speed of the increase is expected to decline and finally approach zero.

If labour force participation rates were at 100 % for people in active age the above increase would mean that 10 million new jobs would have to be created in each five-year period. However, participation rates in the area of 100 % are not a reasonable assumption. For example, World Bank data show that of the total labour force in North Africa (people actually employed) only around 32 %-33 % are females. Thus, for simplicity’s sake, we shall assume that an average participation rate of 70 % is a reasonable target rate for the total population aged 20-64 in the region, and that the jobs held by those leaving the active population are recycled. Under these assumptions approximately 7 million new jobs would have to be created every five-year period over the coming decades in order to absorb the increase in the active population. The task is not impossible, but surely difficult.

Judging by past experience, the region has been relatively successful. Between 1999 and 2003 the total labour force (those actually employed) grew by approximately 6.5 million according to World Bank employment data. The question is: can the region sustain this pace in the future also? Studies on these issues tend to be pessimistic. The level of sustained yearly economic growth required to absorb the rapidly increasing labour supply is just too high for any of the countries’ current economic capacities (Noland and Pack 2004). North African countries have relatively closed economies with little or no western involvement. What is more, public opinion in the region is strongly against western influence. To attain stronger economic growth North African countries must become more integrated in the world economy. This suggests that deeper economic reforms must accompany their efforts to provide new jobs. Given the current state of affairs, this is probably not a change that will be brought about without generating significant tension.

Figure 6 also shows the size of the population in active age by year. Between 2005 and 2030, the total number of people in active age is expected to increase by between 60 and 70 million to reach 150 million by the year 2050 if the UN’s medium forecast proves to be accurate. That is, the size of the population in active age almost doubles over 30 years.

In contrast, developments in Europe are the reverse. Since 1980, there have no longer been any increases in the number of people in active age. From 2010 onwards the active-age population will decrease. The accumulated decrease is expected to be as large as 30 million people by the end of 2050.

One of the consequences of this development is that the potential size of North Africa’s labour market will be twice that of Southern Europe by 2050, compared with only two-thirds today. We can only speculate about the consequences of such a development, but if the North African economies are reasonably successful in absorbing their increasing labour forces, and if economic reforms are possible, the weight of North Africa as an economic player in the Mediterranean region could improve. However, failing in this task could have far reaching negative consequences for the countries in the region and for their neighbours.

Increasing Labour Supply and Increased Competition over Jobs

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It is not only the growth in the potential labour force that is a potential source of problems. The composition of the group of people constituting the active population is also important. I have already shown the extreme development in the size of the active population. This implies an enormous rise in the level of competition for jobs, which might result in wage cuts and possibly serious discontent among the active population. However, there are qualitative aspects to be considered when treating the rise of competition in the labour market and the need to create new jobs.

One aspect that could have more or less serious competitive implications is the age composition of the active population. One way to study this phenomenon is to divide the active population into groups according to their ages.

Figure 7 shows an example of such a grouping procedure. As we can see, there are significant changes ahead with regard to the composition of the active population in the two regions. The magnitude of the changes is such that they are likely to heighten the competition in the labour market as well as affect the performance of the market.

In the period 1950-2000 the youngest age group (those aged 20-34) dominated the labour market on both shores of the Mediterranean. On the North African shore they made up the majority of the active population. In Europe they constituted around 40 % of the people in active age. As the demographic transition advances this is now about to change dramatically.

On the European side, in less than ten years the group aged 20-34 should rise from being the active population’s largest segment to become its smallest sub-group. On the African side the change will be even more dramatic in absolute terms although, despite a sharp decline, those aged 20-34 should continue to be the active population’s largest sub-group throughout the period observed.

At the same time, we can see a sharp increase in the active population’s oldest sub-group. In the case of Southern Europe, from 2020 onwards this sub-group should be the active population’s largest, with a 40% share, while in North Africa it should make up around one third.

There are several important considerations to be drawn from these findings. Perhaps the most obvious is that the labour markets in both sub-regions are becoming increasingly dependent on older workers. This has implications as far as productivity is concerned, since the predominant way of raising productivity is to provide better or improved education for the younger generation before it enters the labour market (Becker et al. 1990). With a shrinking share of the labour force in the younger age cohorts, national industries can no longer benefit to the same extent from the improved human capital provided by public education to the same extent they did in the past. This is particularly true for Europe, which is facing a substantial decline in the supply of younger people as the much smaller birth cohorts, born in the 1970s and 1980s, enter the active-age population. In Europe, much more than before, raising productivity levels is becoming a matter of honing the skills and knowledge of the older work force.

In North Africa the structural shift poses a somewhat different problem. As we have seen, the size of North Africa’s labour force is expanding fast. The population explosion that North Africa experienced over the last fifty years has so far made older people a rare commodity in modern North Africa. As the population ages, the population explosion comes to encompass older ages also, with the consequence that people aged 50-64 are starting to become a significant force in society. As this group increases in number the competition between younger and older workers is likely to increase too.

Another reason why this group is becoming more numerous so quickly is the much improved life expectancy in the region. It is not until 2005 that life expectancy in the region should be above 65 years, and as short ago as 1950 life expectancy was only 40 years. Thus, historically the 50-64 age group has been underrepresented in the active population for the simple reason that many people died before reaching the age of 50 or in age interval 50 to 65. Older workers are, in other words, a new phenomenon in North Africa and it is probably too soon to tell exactly how the sudden appearance of older workers in the labour market will come to affect the chances of other people in an active age.

There are several possible scenarios. There will be an increasing incidence of young people out-competing older workers both as a result of better education among younger workers, and because younger workers are usually cheaper to hire than older workers. Such a scenario would entail rising unemployment among older workers. Rising unemployment among older workers could lead to either an increase in emigration of older worker, something relatively unknown so far, or increased support burden for the younger generation.

It is also possible to imagine a reversed scenario, whereby we will see low turnover in positions occupied by older worker where we previously seen high turnover as a result of older workers now living longer and thus, enjoy an extended working life. A lower turnover in jobs occupied by older workers lower the demand for replacement of the workforce. This implies that younger workers could face increasing difficulties in entering the labour market. The result is raising unemployment among the young. If lower turnover rates coincide with incapacity on behalf of North African countries to create sufficient jobs to match the growth of the population in active age, the result could easily be mass-unemployment among the young. Mass-unemployment among the young would no doubt increase the potential for emigration and population movement in this group. Nothing of course prevents the two opposing scenarios to operate simultaneously.

Figure 7 also provides empirical evidence of the increasing potential for the type of intergenerational conflicts in Muslim societies that Fargues (1993) warned about in the early 1990’s. Fargues’ (1993) argued that upsurge of fundamental Islamism and rural to urban migration has spread in a similar pattern across time and space in Muslim countries. According to Fargues’ (pp15-17), high unemployment and rapid urbanization in combination with prolonged coexistence of succeeding generations making fathers and sons competing for their livelihood causes an inter-generational conflict whereby the younger generation is for the first time refused a smooth succession of their fathers when reaching adulthood. This mix give rise to a generation of frustrated young men refuting the ideology of their fathers and turning to Islamism for refuge to achieve change in the hope of overcoming their economically strained situation.

The increasing competition between succeeding generation suggested by Figure 7 could lead to exactly the type of frustration of the younger generation and an upsurge of the Islamism movement predicted by Fargues’ (1993). Whether or not this is the case, the increased potential for competition in the labour market is likely to be an important source for other types of tension in North African societies.

Nor should we ignore the risks for tension and conflict in Southern Europe as a result of demographic changes in North Africa. As indicated, we can not exclude the possibility of large population movements from North Africa to Europe as the competition for jobs tighten in the African labour market. While Europe certainly has the capacity to receive immigration from North Africa, it is probably not in a position to accommodate mass immigration. We have already seen some signs of inter group tension between a growing immigrant community and the native population, in Europe (notably in France and Holland). Mass immigration could escalate this development, and eventually bring about a more overt confrontation between ethnic minorities and the native population in Europe (Homer-Dixon 1991).

Southern Europe also faces a large challenge from its ageing population. Dependency ratios are a good proxy to describe the ageing process taunting Southern Europe. We achieve the total dependency ratio simply by adding the number of young people (under age 20) to the number of old people (aged 65+) and divide the sum with the number of people in working age. The former two categories are often (but not necessarily) economically dependent on the people in working age. Thus, a high dependency ratio indicates that the economic burden on the working age population is high, and reversed if the dependency ratio is low.

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As we can appreciate from figure 8, Southern Europe is experiencing a moment of glory in terms of dependency ratio. Never before has so few been dependent on so many in Europe. This is now changing. As the post war baby boom generations in Europe start to reach retirement age, the much smaller birth cohorts resulting from stable below replacement fertility levels from the 1980 and onwards start to enter the working age population. The result is a declining number of people in working age and a rising number of people in retirement age. Together these two trends cause a sharp increase in dependency ratios for Southern Europe throughout the first half of this century. There is a general agreement that the rising dependency ratio in Europe will make, among other things, the generous pension schemes unsustainable in a very near future (Sandell 2003; Herce 2001)

This calls for some uncomfortable reform work, whereby welfare states have to come up with alternative ways to finance pensions. Germany and France have already announced changes amid mass political protest. Rough reform times are still ahead and it could be expected that more than one government will have fallen before the political reality in Europe catches up with the demographic reality. Failing in solving for the ageing problem could trigger an economic crisis out of the ordinary (Reher 2004; Jackson and Howe 2003). The increased economic burden could easily lead to a situation of relative deprivation, whereby both people in working age and people in retirement would see a continuous economic deterioration, and a contraction of benefits provided by the welfare state. This could lead to rivalry between different groups in the society as we can expect them to try to maintain a constant standard of living despite decreasing economic resources (Homer-Dixon 1991). If such rivalry should emerge amid a wave of mass immigration the situation is further complicated.

Figure 8 is not only carrying bad news. When Europe now starts to experience a rise in total dependency ratios North African states can still expect to see continued massive declines in their dependency ratios, and no signs of real ageing problems yet. The significance of this disconcerted development should not be underestimated.

Clearly, the favourable development of North African dependency ratios is likely to provide new opportunities in this region. In the past, North Africa had to confront a situation whereby over half of its population was under age 15.  As North Africa now face decreasing fertility levels, the share of young people over the share of people in working age is declining at high speed. This opens up the possibility for freeing up resources that traditionally has been earmarked for maintaining large families to instead favour investment, development, and saving. All things equal, the demographic leverage implied by falling dependency ratios in northern Africa simply means that it in the future will take a smaller increase in income per worker to produce a larger increase in income per capita (Malmberg and Lind 2004; Bloom and Freeman 1986). These resources could turn out to be vital when coping with the problems caused by depopulation of the country side as well as facilitating the adaptation process in urban areas. And maybe the falling dependency ratio is an early indication that the time has come for North Africa to manage sustainable economic growth that would reduce the economical distance to its rich neighbours in the north.

National Indicators of Demographic Change

So far I have treated the North African countries as a coherent region. While this is justified for many reasons it is also an inherent simplification of the reality. There are no doubt many similarities between the countries in North Africa, but there are also implicit and explicit differences. Thus, in the following I will briefly deal with some of the demographic problems highlighted above on a country by country basis, whereby I classify each country depending on how well or bad it fairs in comparison with the other countries. The purpose of this analysis is to single out where the largest risks for demographically related problems are greatest, and when.

Figure 9 shows the development of population growth and urbanization across the six North African countries (compare analysis in relation to Figure 4). Just as we would expect, the general tendency is towards slower population growth and growing urbanization in all six countries. Of the six countries, Egypt is the country which stands out in this comparison.

Egypt has the by far largest population of all North African countries. In difference with the other countries, Egypt has experienced homogenous growth in rural and urban areas up until 2005. The result is a much slower urbanization process than in the other countries. The level of urbanization in Egypt is about ten percentage points below the regional average. (In 2005, about 40 % of Egypt’s population live in urban areas compared to the regional average of 50 %.)

Given the relative weight of Egypt’s large population this means that the regional analysis above somewhat underestimates the level of urbanization in the majority of countries in the region. For example, Morocco and Algeria, the other two countries with a relatively large populations, have currently an urbanization rate that is ten percent above the regional average. That is, around 60 % of Algeria’s and Morocco’s populations live in urban areas, rather than 50 % as suggested by the regional average measure.  In addition, smaller countries like Tunisia, Libya and Mauritania have urbanization ratios above 70 %.

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It is worth noting that Libya has an urbanization ratio above the south European average. Similarly, Libya reached a high level of urbanization several decades before the other countries in the region, and that the speed of the urbanization no longer is an issue in Libya. Tunisia is experiencing a similar development as Libya, whereby the speed of the urbanization process is starting to fade.

What conclusions could we draw from the persisting country differences observed in Figure 9? Firstly, problems related to poor economic performance and rapidly increasing urbanization rates as discussed above are currently more likely to be present in Algeria, Morocco and Mauritania, than in the other countries in the region.

Libya and to some extent Tunisia are experiencing increased stability in their urbanization process, or put differently the urbanization process is almost completed. This should improve these two countries capacities to more effectively adjust to their new demographic reality.

Secondly, the regions largest country, Egypt, has not yet been exposed to the winds of demographic change to the same extent as most other countries in the region. As Figure 9 clearly show, this is soon about to change. Egypt is the country in Northern Africa which will see the most profound changes in the half century ahead of us. We can only speculate about the consequences of these changes. However, it seems reasonable to assume that Egypt could overtake Morocco and Algeria as the North African country with the highest emigration potential as the Egyptian society changes from a rural to an urban society.

Egypt is by no means a new emigration country. If anything it is different from the others. Instead of targeting Europe, Egypt migrants have preferred emigration to the countries in the Gulf region. However, if population pressure increases Egypt emigration flows may change direction and start to target European countries to a higher degree, particularly if the outlook for landing a job in the Gulf region is becoming more difficult. The instability in the Gulf region is making this more plausible. Adding to this that many countries in the Middle East are seeing increasing demographic pressure themselves, the Egyptians migration preferences may easily change in the near future.

Egypt is also likely to become more exposed to the political problems following the urbanization process described earlier in this paper. Since Egypt is the by far largest country in the region its demographic transition is in relative terms more complicated, and could come to influence neighbouring countries to a higher degree since more resources are needed to cushion the effects of increased urbanization in the Egyptian society.

The same heterogeneous pattern is also evident if we instead focus on labour force turnover rates. Recall from Figure 6 that I defined the labour force turnover rate as those entering into the active population (those turning 20-24 over a five year period) minus those who are leaving the active population (those turning 65-69 over a five year period. The result gives the increase or decrease in the active population in periods of five years. The measure is a rough indication of how many new jobs a country have to produce to absorb a growing active population. Figure 10 show the labour force turnover rate by country.

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From figure 10 we can easily appreciate that all North African countries are facing substantial pressure with regard to their capacity to create new jobs to absorb a growing active population. With the exception of Mauritania, never before has the active population grown so fast in absolute terms in Northern African countries.

Starting from the period 2010-2015 the speed of the increase in the active population will slow down dramatically in many North African countries. However, this slowdown should not be misinterpreted. All countries will still see substantial increases in the size of their active population for most of the period. Hence, absorbing increases in the active population, that is job creation and the economic pressure implied by this, is and will continue to be the perhaps most important political and economical challenge for much of the coming half century if the North African countries is to succeed in adapting to their new demographic reality.  

Despite a clear trend across countries towards slower growth of the active population there are some important differences. Egypt, which in absolute terms faces the largest challenges, is seeing a substantial delay in its projected slowdown. While most countries will see slower growth already in 2010, according to UN’s projections Egypt will not experience sustained slowdown until after 2030.

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Given that Egypt share of the absolute increase in the active population is almost as large as all the other countries together, this deviation in development patterns could be crucial for the development of the region as a whole. As already mentioned, one of the consequences of rapid urbanization and rapid growth of the size of the labour force is higher competition over existing and new jobs as and if they become available. The fact that Egypt’s peak in active population growth is extended for a period of 30 years puts Egypt’s economy to a serious test as to its capacity to absorb the growing active population. This is introducing a higher risk for failure and consequently a higher risk for population movements than in other countries in the region. It could also give rise to a prolonged risks for political unrest in the population, and higher than normal risks for rebellion and act of violence as explained in the earlier sections of this paper (Fargues 1993; Cincotta et al 2002; Homer-Dixon (1991).

Egypt and Mauritania also stands out when scrutinizing the other demographic indicators used in this analysis. For example, the measure on intergenerational competition (see Figure 11, compare analysis in relation to Figure 7) shows that Algeria, Libya, Morocco, and Tunisia are ahead of Egypt and Mauritania in terms of the advancement of the demographic transition.

In the case of Mauritania, one could even say that the demographic transition has barely started. Although, Mauritania is seeing a spectacular increase in urbanization ratios (see Figure 9), and is more advanced than Algeria and Morocco in this regard. Algeria, Libya, Morocco, and Tunisia are facing immediate changes as to the composition of its active population.

On the upside, however, is that the same four countries have a better outlook with regard to the development of their dependency ratios, which are bellow the regional average for most of the half century ahead of us(see Figure 12).

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To conclude the country specific discussion, the present analysis suggests that there are small but important differences between the North African countries. These differences concern foremost the timing of the demographic transition. The six countries fall into three different categories.

In the first category we find Libya and Tunisia. These two countries are the most advanced with respect to the demographic transition. This does not mean that they are free from the demographically related problems discussed in this paper, this is clearly not the case. Instead Libya and Tunisia are equally or more exposed to other countries in the region to problems derived from demographic change in the immediate and short term. Urbanization is or is almost completed in the two countries. Their primary concern for the immediate future is absorbing the growth of their active population and dealing with the rapidly increasing intergenerational competition in the labour market.

In the second category we find Morocco and Algeria. These two countries are experiencing the most intense part of the demographic transition. Urbanization is still very rapid, and the capacity to absorb their growing active population by providing labour is put to as serious test as growth of their active population is peeking over the coming 5-10 years. Hence, in the short and medium term Algeria and Morocco are facing the perhaps largest risks of demographically related problems of all countries in the region, partly because they are large countries, but mainly because they are exposed to rapid demographic change in all the dimensions explored here.

In the last category we find Egypt and Mauritania. While both countries certainly face short term risks, in Egypt’s case since its growth in the active population is reaching a peek level, and in Mauritania’s case since its urbanization rate is one of the fastest and most advanced in the region, the main demographic concerns for these two countries are in the medium and long term. Because Egypt is the regions population giant this is a major concern when assessing the development of the region as a whole.

For example, when urbanization is completed in most of North Africa, Egypt is not likely to be more than half way into this process. Similarly, Egypt will see sustained growth of its active population for much of this coming half century, while its neighbours will see substantial slowdowns. The demographic scenario facing Egypt suggest the country has to be able to provide economic growth out of the ordinary for a prolonged period. Failing in this will result in higher unemployment, higher risk for political unrest, and increased potential for population movement particularly if economic growth remains slow and political instability prevail in the Middle East.


The demographic transition period that we are experiencing right now promise to be exiting, but it also constitutes a situation that is potentially dangerous with increasing probabilities for friction and contention both nationally as well as internationally as individual countries try to cope with the new demographic conditions.

We can only speculate about the nature of the conflicts and tensions that could result from the population development in North Africa and Southern Europe. The literature on the topic is far from unanimous. Empirical evidence is also hard to come by since the population increase that we see now is extreme in a historical perspective (McNicoll 1984).

Despite the inconclusive evidence regarding the relationship between demographic developments and security issues, there seem to be agreement about a couple of things. Any conflicts and tension arising from demographic changes is likely to have both national and international ramifications (Homer-Dixon 1991; Bloom and Freeman 1986; McNicoll 1984). Secondly, there is a probability that population developments could result in armed conflicts (Tir and Diehl 1998; Cincotta et al 2003), but it is judged to be relatively small (McNicoll 1984; Simon 1999). Although, the potential for the spread of Fundamental Islamism or other extremist movements should not be underestimated and such developments are probably the largest hard security threat to be derived from current demographic developments (Fargues 1993). However, demography is nothing but a small explanatory piece of this complex problem.

Even if it is hard to tell with certainty that the demographic development in the Mediterranean region is dangerous or if it could give rise in more or less serious conflict, we have to choose. Do we want to take the risk of doing nothing and simply sit back and observe and deal with any strategic problems as they occur, or do we instead try to eliminate some of the causes to the potential problems before they emerge? Since we can not exclude the possibility of more serious types of conflict, it is probably a good investment to become involved in the problems, whether we like it or not. Simply waiting for the worst to happen and then act is not only going to be more costly, it will delay the development of the Mediterranean region for many years.

If Europe choose to get involved in remedying some of North Africa’s demographically related problems, the timing is also important. Since the European population problem partly coincides in time with the African population problem, we can expect that Europe’s capacity to devote resources to the African population problem will become more limited as time passes. We are now in a window of opportunity. Within ten to fifteen years Europe is expected to enter into a more costly period of its demographic transition as the ageing problem accelerates and the active population starts to decline. This means that it will become increasingly difficult for Europe to take effective action to prevent demographically induced problems from emerging in North Africa even if it liked to. If Europe opts to get involved in solving for some of the demographically related problems emerging in North Africa the time is now. And given the nature of the type of problems that may emerge and the geographical proximity of this region, from a strategic point of view it may be a good investment to use this window of opportunity to put in place the necessary mechanisms for overcoming some of North Africa’s demographically related security risks.

The question is of course what Europe can and should do. The most obvious consequence of a general failure to accommodate the new and emerging demographic reality is no doubt large population movements. This does not have to be negative. As we have seen Southern Europe and northern Africa are facing opposite developments in their labour market size. Hence, there is a potential for mutual benefit of population movement. Southern Europe is at risk of experiencing labour supply shortages, while northern Africa risk facing excess labour supply. Thus, just as older European countries relived some of their strains of industrialization at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century by mass emigration (Kuznets 1973), Southern Europe could now consider offering North Africa a similar escape valve , and at the same time tap into the excess labour supply to remedy its own emerging demographic deficits.

The problem, however, is that Europe can hardly sustain mass immigration in the medium and long term, without risking a more serious confrontation between immigrants and natives (Homer-Dixon 1991).  Consequently, immigration is probably not a solution to the problem, but rather one option to remedy a part of the demographically related problems experienced in Southern Europe and North Africa that has to be carefully and effectively managed.

The only way to seriously tackle the problems stemming from rapid population growth in northern Africa is to adopt an integrated approach.  To cope with new demographic realities on the shores of the Mediterranean sea, both sides need to show good leadership. Northern Africa faces primarily problems related to scarcity of resources such as food and water. But it is also confronted with a lack of resources to accommodate its rapidly growing urban population. The main obstacle to the latter is poor economic growth. Europe is hardly responsible for the lack of economic growth in northern Africa, but it probably contributes to the situation indirectly. Much more can be done to improve economic growth in the whole Mediterranean region. As it is now the difference between the developed and the developing side of the Mediterranean Sea are increasing. This makes the region unique since other important border areas where the developed and developing world meets see declining differences (Moré 2003). Braking with this development is the only feasible way to avoid increased tension as a result of differential demographic development in the Mediterranean region.

The problem, however, is that Europe alone cannot trigger an economic development of the scoop necessary to absorb the rapidly growing supply of labour in North Africa. The type of economic growth required to counteract North Africa’s problems can only be brought about by economic reforms and change whereby the North African economy becomes significantly integrated into the world economy. This may seem unproblematic and even straightforward, but herein lays the problem. Many of the North African states do not like to see an increasing western influence implied by a more open economy capable of sustained high growth (Noland and Pack 2004). Thus, it is important to overcome the reluctance to change that is found in many North African states.

Most likely this can only be brought about by a serious commitment by Europe and the European Union of the type as seen in Europe’s dealing with for example Turkey and other accession states as Romania and Bulgaria. This does not imply membership with the European Union. The European Union could offer real incentives including access to the common market without offering full membership. The Barcelona process is an example of such a program, although it suffers from lack of resources, and perhaps even political commitment. The idea of creating a free trade area in the Mediterranean region is, however, a prerequisite if the conditions for sustained economic growth in North Africa are to become more than just wishful thinking. Without a serious commitment of this type North Africa is unlikely to embark on any major reform work simply because the ruling elites have nothing to benefit from change.

In addressing the demographic problems in North Africa, there are some important differences between the countries that make up for the North African region, which has to be considered if Europe decides to become engaged. It is held without doubt that all countries are facing substantial demographic pressure throughout the period observed here. Strictly from a demographic point of view, in the short term, Algeria and Morocco have a less favourable demographic outlook than for example Libya and Tunisia, but in the medium and long term Egypt emerges as the country with the toughest road to complete in dealing with its demographic transition. Adding to this the strategic location of Egypt, with its proximity to the Middle East region, a higher risk for political unrest in Egypt as a consequence of its demographic situation could have wider implication in an already troubled corner of the world. So far much of the attention is diverted to the Maghreb countries. To be successful in addressing the potential strategic risks posed by North African demographic developments it is wise to keep Egypt in mind.

Finally, what should be Spain’s role in all this, and why should it consider involvement? The question is quite simple. Firstly, and as to the why, conflicts being soft or hard have repercussions for every one in the neighbourhood, but not everyone are affected similarly. They are in fact a bit like an earthquake: the closer you are to the epicentre the more the earth will rock. Spain is without comparison the Southern European country closest to any potential problems in the North African region, and can be expected to be directly or indirectly affected by any disturbances in western North Africa. This includes Countries such as Algeria, Tunisia Morocco, and Mauritania. . In short Spain is a natural gateway to North Africa, and it is the country with perhaps the European country with the highest stakes as to potential involvement in conflicts in the region. Secondly, Spin has a proven record as a mediator in dealings with North African countries, and it has long dating diplomatic relationship as well as a historical presence in the region. This is an important asset for any negotiation between North African countries and, for example the European Union. This qualifies the country as a natural leader in initiatives on behalf of Southern Europe in North Africa.

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[1] Data from the United Nations Population Division’s World Population Prospects: 2002 Revision Population Database ( If not otherwise stated, all data in this article are extracted from this source. I use the UN’s Medium Scenario.

[2] Even if the UN’s forecast is proved wrong and fertility rates return above the replacement level, the damage will already have been done in Southern Europe. The reason for this is that 25 years of below-replacement fertility rates produce a substantive decline in the number of potential mothers. Thus, a natural population decline in Southern Europe is virtually impossible to avoid after the year 2020 (see Lutz 2002).

Rickard Sandell

Written by Rickard Sandell