The Rising Tide: Accounting for the Youth Bulge in the Pacific

Patrick Quinn | Pacific Fellow

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The increasing concerns of climate governance and heightening geostrategic competition often claim the lion’s share of attention when it comes to the Pacific. Yet, of all the challenges the region faces, high population growth and a corresponding ‘youth bulge’ will become one of the most central in the next two decades. Indeed, mirroring the existential threat of rising sea levels is an ever-increasing density of young people across the Pacific. Amidst the compounding concerns of state and human security, this so-called ‘youth bulge’ seems poised to exacerbate existing challenges but may also prove a catalyst for effective policy if meaningfully enfranchised.

The overlapping social and political pressures resulting from climate and health-related challenges of coming decades are likely to become especially pronounced in the more densely populated Melanesian island states of Fiji, Solomon Islands, and Papua New Guinea (PNG). Underlying these challenges will be the demands on, and associated opportunities available to, younger generations; a concern particularly acute in a region in which half the population is currently under the age of 23.

As the COVID-19 pandemic has laid plain, those aged 16 to 25 play an often-underappreciated role in economic and social life. Globally, young people have been disproportionately exposed to the risks and consequences of economic downturns relative to other demographics. While these trends are not unique to the Pacific nor our current historical moment, they are of greater significance given their intersection of broader state and human security concerns. In coming decades the disproportionate effect of economic challenges will be interwoven with the effects of climate change, which are forecast to be directly responsible for an additional 100 million people living in extreme poverty by 2030. Nowhere will this be more acute than in the Pacific, which boasts the highest proportion of young people globally.

Current estimates project regional population growth to increase from approximately 11.9 million to a peak of 19.7 million by 2050. PNG’s population, for example, currently sits at approximately 8.7 million people, and is forecast to reach at least 15.1 million by 2050. The Solomon Islands is likewise projected to experience a surge in population from 630 000 to 1.4 million by the middle of this century.

Population growth itself is not the problem. Rather, it is the challenge it may represent for current systems of governance, both regionally and globally. Tuvalu and Kiribati, for example, are among the smallest and most geographically isolated states in the world. Yet, they both face disproportionate challenges relative to their influence on global trends, and possess relatively few mechanisms by which to unilaterally cope with said challenges.

Various responses, such as Australia’s Pacific Labour Scheme, have sought to allow individuals aged 21 to 45 from eligible Pacific nations to be contracted for low- and semi-skilled jobs in Australia. While the scheme has been far from perfect, what remains clear is that between 2019 and 2020 alone, the number of workers registered in the scheme went from 207 to 855, indicative of the demand for such opportunities.

While such schemes enhance the opportunities and prospects of youth, it is–and can only be–part of a solution. If, for example, the population of the Pacific approximates 18 million by the middle of the century, the increase of a projected 120,000 Pacific island labour migrants would account for just 1.5 per cent of the region’s actual working-age population. Such schemes, moreover, are not designed to help navigate and address non-employment related issues facing youth, such as health, social stresses, and political representation.

To be clear, large numbers of young people are not a disadvantage. Youth engagement in the Pacific has seen significant policy shifts and instrumental advocacy work in areas of climate governance and social justice. However, while there will be few people anywhere left unaffected by the environmental, economic, and geopolitical challenges of coming decades, the disproportionate brunt will be borne by countries already facing the sharp end of said issues.

Global trends have demonstrated that youth engagement is perhaps the most powerful force for dealing with the existential challenges of our century. In what may be an ironic truth, a region disproportionately on the front lines of these inherently global dilemmas is also a region disproportionately predisposed to an increasingly young population. While the odds would suggest greater instability, the prospects of unavoidable crisis are not predetermined. The capacity of governments and regional bodies to harness and enfranchise, not marginalise this wealth of young people will prove a crucial, yet so far underestimated factor. An effective first step must see greater attention to health and infrastructure, but also the expansion of regional employment and migration pathways. Should these colliding forces be effectively harnessed and reconciled, there remains real opportunity such that the Pacific’s ‘youth bulge’ yields a demographic dividend, not a compounding crisis.

Patrick Quinn is the Pacific Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.