August 16, 2005

Vastly different

It's likely you have heard this statement, or variations on it: "India is now an increasingly young country." Right? There are regular claims to that effect, about how the population of our youth is suddenly exploding, how the youth form an ever-larger share of the country. For one example, here's a quote from an article that youth icon, Anil Ambani, wrote for several publications for August 15 2004:
    [T]his country today is a place vastly different from what it was even ten years ago. It is now an overwhelmingly young country.

I've always wondered about such claims: mainly because an entire population doesn't change character so dramatically so fast. So what might have caused this change that that Ambani, and so many others, speak of? What might have turned this country "overwhelmingly young" where it wasn't so "even ten years ago"?

Answer: nothing. Mainly because it isn't true. From the figures, the conclusion is inescapable: the youth's share in the country's population, far from increasing, is actually decreasing. Take a look.

Let's assume that by "youth", we mean people under the age of 25. Over the last four censuses, these are the fractions of the Indian population that segment makes up:

1971: 58.6%
1981: 57.8%
1991: 55.4%
2001: 53.7%

Perhaps, then, we mean people under the age of 35? Well, for that segment, these are the numbers:

1971: 72.6%
1981: 71.8%
1991: 70.7%
2001: 69.0%

Still headed down. 15-25, then? Sliced that way, we see some increase:

1971: 16.6%
1981: 18.2%
1991: 18.3%
2001: 18.4%

And 15-35, the same:

1971: 30.6%
1981: 32.2%
1991: 33.6%
2001: 33.7%

So maybe Anil Ambani and others who say such things really mean the 15-25 or 15-35 age groups when they speak of an "increasingly young" country. But three points about even that claim.

One, we're talking about increases of about 2 (15-25) and 3 points (15-35) over 30 years; and just a tenth of a point (in both cases) over the last ten years. Is this reasonably described as turning India "overwhelmingly" young? Is a tenth of a point to be interpreted as "vastly different"?

Two, is it reasonable to use trends in less than a fifth (15-25) or about a third (15-35) of the population to characterize the whole population?

Three, the under-15 numbers are trending steadily downwards; which means that by the next census even the 15-25/15-35 numbers will begin heading downwards. Then even these weak claims of increasing youth will start fraying.

And finally, what these numbers mean is that the guys who are steadily increasing their share are the old fuddy-duddies like me. The numbers for the 35-60 age group:

1971: 21.4%
1981: 21.5%
1991: 21.9%
2001: 22.2%

Nothing unusual about this; believe me, we are not going around whacking youngsters with cricket bats. No, this is a simple consequence of declining birth rates over the last few decades. Like most other countries as they develop, India is best decribed as an aging country.

So move over, you young whippersnappers. Make way for the fuddy-duddies: this is increasingly, if not overwhelmingly, our country as well. And pass me my walking stick, wouldja?


Sources: 1971 and 1981, 1991, 2001 (for 2001, you'll need to download, unzip, open in Excel and do the arithmetic).


phucker said...

Whenever people refer to India as a young country, they are talking relative to the Western world or "First-World". Within India itself, your statement is correct based on available statistics. But compared to the situation in the developed world, we have a larger absolute number of young people about the enter workforce, or in the workforce at a young age. And considering the higher birth rates in our country, over the next ten years, relative to the West, this trend will continue. The proportions of the Old Fogies in the developed world is a serious cause for concern for them - Social Security, Health, e.t.c.

Dilip D'Souza said...

TTG: even relative to the West, we've always had a larger absolute number of young people entering the workforce, because we've always had a larger absolute number of people in the first place!

And in any case, if you read Ambani's essay, for example, there's no mention or implication of making this claim relative to the West. He just says, this is how India has changed over the last ten years. As do many others.

Vikrum said...


I read Ambani's essay and you're right that he does not make any comparisons to the West. Thus TTG's point doesn't make much sense.

You're right that India 2005 has less proportionately less young people than India 1971, 81, and 91.

If Ambani was questioned on his essay, my guess is that he would buttress his claim that India "has more young people than ever before" by mentioning that India has more young people in the aggregate than before (i.e. Year 2005: 53.7% of 1 billion = 537,000,000 people under 25; Year 1971: 58.6% of 548 million = 321,128,000 people under 25).

Thus, Ambani used "funny math" to quote Al Gore. He ignored the proportion of young people and only focued on the aggregate number of young people. Or perhaps I am giving him too much credit.

I think the question we need to ask ourselves is not, "Is India a younger country?" but "Why does Ambani (and others) make statements that India is an 'increasingly young country' in the first place?"

And this is where politics comes into play. Since Ambani is a politician, he wants votes, including youth votes. What better way to get someone's vote than to tell him/her that she is special. By saying that India is an "increasingly young country," he is trying to get young people to support him by telling them they are special.

This point is backed up by the fact that Ambani was selected as the MTV "Youth Icon of the Year" in 2003. He wants young support.

But the Ambani youth invocations go beyond mere vote pandering. By affiliating himself with the youth, he also portrays himself as new, changing, "in with the times," hip, and progressive. It is another subtle way of marketing himself.

phucker said...

We have not always had a larger proportion of the youth than exists in the western countries. For long periods of time, America had a pretty young population. It is only now in the past 10-15 years, that has seen the greying of the Baby Boomer generation that our proportion of young people is more than that of the West.
Ambani may or may not have been pandering to the youth (which if he was, makes him savvier than 99.99999 of the other politicians out there). I don't have any sources to back this up (because I'm too lazy go googling at work), but I definitely recall these statements from the more reputable business magazines/newspapers.

Abi said...

Dilip, to-day's Economic Times was guest-edited by Vivek Paul, ex-CEO of Wipro. He even wrote a signed editorial! And, guess what he started with?

With more than half of India’s people under 25 years of age, ...

Of course, Paul doesn't talk about population trends. But, as you showed in your post, his assertion would have been valid even 30 years ago!

The meme about large youth population in India, as TTG says, makes sense only in the context of what is happening in the West where, an ever increasing population of retirees will have to be taken care of by their social security programs funded by an ever decreasing working-age population. However, in the absence of immigration and free movement of labour, it is not clear how large India's advantage really is.

km said...

Perhaps Mr. Ambani meant "young" in a figurative sense. Maybe more and more people are walking around with their hats at rakish angles, flowers in their button-hole and singing songs for their lovers?

No, wait, that was Dev Anand. Dammit, he's still young, isn't he?


Anand said...

That's a lot of statistics in one post! I prefer Ambani-Paul anecdotes!!

Suhail said...

Those are some revealing numbers, Dilip. Never knew that YoY the percentages are reducing.

Amit said...

Dilip - Give the man a break -- he just had a relatively young fight with his not so young brother :-)

Anonymous said...

By "young" may be people mean immature?

Anonymous said...

Dilip -- you're right to take issue with the Ambani statement because it was loosely worded and somewhat exaggerated. But the basic assertion is slightly different and absolutely correct: the general claim has been that India will have a rising share of working-age population. Using only the figures you provide, and assuming the 15-60 age bracket as "working age", we have the following population dynamics:

1971: 52.0%
1981: 53.7%
1991: 55.5%
2001: 55.9%

And this, make no mistake about it, is a pretty powerful force. All we need now is to create enough jobs for all these guys!

Dilip D'Souza said...

Sid, even allowing for your interpretation, that it's the working-age population these claims mean, this merits more thought.

Yes, the numbers are large: but it is any surprise that the 15-60 age group makes up 55% of the population? Besides, there's also the challenge, as you mention, of generating jobs for all these people.

Besides, is a growth of 4 points in 30 years, and a growth that is visibly slowing (0.4% in last ten years), a great change?

And why is it slowing? Because the 0-15 share is, with decreasing birth rates, itself slowing, and much more dramatically than these growths:

1971: 42%
1981: 39.6%
1991: 37.3%
2001: 35.3%

So I'm actually willing to bet that the 2011 census will show a decrease in the 15-60 group's share.

Krishna, Dev Anand is ALWAYS young, and you better not challenge that ever.