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The UK’s about to have, like, tonnes more teenagers

Gluts of young people change the economy in both good and bad ways.

Something interesting is currently happening to the UK’s demography (i.e. its population structure). Like many other developed countries, for years Britain has had an aging population, because life expectancies have grown at the same time as birth rates have fallen. But it’s about to get a glut of young adults. Between 2020 and 2030, the number of British 18-year-olds will increase by 25 percent. Over the same time period, the number of 18-year-olds in the EU will increase by just 2 percent.

Having more people in a certain age bracket can have a profound effect on the way an economy functions. And having more young people is often seen as a positive thing for the economy. That’s because young adults generally contribute more to the economy than they take out of it. The correlation between youth and health means young adults are thought to be some of the most productive workers around. And as a group, they require far less state-funded healthcare or benefits (the majority of government welfare spending goes into pensions).

All this is particularly good news for Britain, because it will help soften the looming NHS and pension crises. More working-age adults should mean more workers; which means more taxpayers and therefore more tax. More tax equals more money for the government to spend on those institutions without having to worry about the political backlash it might get if it raised taxes or took out more debt. On top of that, because young people have traditionally made up a majority of hospitality and retail workers, their swelling numbers may also solve the current industry staff shortage. That might stop there being mass shortages and price rises across the sector.

However, there can be a darker side to youth booms. Young people - and especially young men - are more likely to engage in behaviours that most people consider antisocial, including crime and violence. Large cohorts of younger people have been linked to rising murder rates, riots and even wars. These things tend to negatively affect the economy because fear and instability make people less likely to engage in economic activity.

As a potential voting bloc, the youth bulge is likely to be too concentrated in specific areas to make much difference to who wins UK elections. But future governments may need to pay more attention to young people anyway. That’s because how much youth antisocial behaviour occurs depends partly on how well the economy is meeting their needs. The more young people who feel like they don’t have good economic opportunities - because there’s not many well-paid jobs around, say - the more likely they are to engage in antisocial behaviour.

So whether Britain receives more economic benefits or more economic costs from its youth boom may ultimately rest on how well young people fare in its economy. At the moment, that notion should raise some warning flags. Not only have young people had their education, work and lives heavily disrupted by Covid-19 restrictions, they have also tended to be on the losing end of a variety of older policies and trends, from decades of rising house prices, to austerity, to Brexit (which about three-quarters of people who were then aged 18-24 voted against).

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