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In unrest around the world, a society’s median age can spell the difference between violent revolution and peaceful dissent. Exhibit A: Catalonia

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Barcelona, Feb. 12, 2019: A woman holds a Catalan flag in a protest at Catalunya Square against the Supreme Court in Madrid, which is trying former politicians involved in Catalonia's 2017 declaration of an independent legislature. Catalan separatism has had dramatic political consequences over the past two years, but with relatively little violence. Could Catalonia's aging population be the reason for that?ALBERT GEA/Reuters

Paul Morland is an associate research fellow at Birkbeck, University of London, and an authority on demography. He is the author of The Human Tide: How Population Shaped the Modern World.

On a recent trip to Catalonia, I visited a little seaside town called Portbou, where the unfortunate German Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin committed suicide in 1940, fearing he would be sent back to occupied France and delivered into the hands of the Nazis. There is not a great deal to see in Portbou besides Benjamin’s grave, Benjamin’s memorial (which is powerful) and various other Benjamin memorabilia. But the visit answered a riddle for me. About a year earlier, the Catalans in Spain voted to secede. The Spanish government had opposed the referendum and declared it illegal, but it had gone ahead against Madrid’s will. The authorities moved in, suspended the region’s autonomy and arrested many of the separatists in the regional government. There were clashes in the streets, and hundreds of people were injured. But nobody died. Indeed, the whole thing passed with a remarkable lack of violence. In terms of news stories, it was the dog that did not bark. It may still have political and constitutional ramifications in Spain, but there were no security or military consequences.

It was on my visit that I realized why. Portbou is pretty quiet – its population is half of what it was around 1900. And its residents are old. I only saw people in their 60s or older sitting around drinking coffee or beer and chatting with friends. Catalonia generally, it turns out, is simply too old to kick off a civil war. If you lined up all its inhabitants by age, the man or woman in the middle would be in his or her mid-40s, typical of Spain as a whole. People in their 40s don’t take to the hills with Armalite rifles. In Catalonia, there are almost twice as many people in their early 40s as in their early 20s. When civil war did break out in the region in the 1930s and George Orwell described scenes of anarchist barbers taking control in Barcelona, the median Spaniard was almost two decades younger than his or her descendants today.

All of this is in marked contrast to the struggle that has flared up at the other end of the Pyrenees, in Basque Country. But when that violence kicked off in the late 1960s, the median age in the area was barely 30; today, as in Catalonia, it is well over 40 – and all is peaceful again. A similar aging may have helped calm the conflict in Northern Ireland, too, where the median age is fast heading toward 40 and where the number of those over 80 is increasing more than 10 times as fast as the number of those under 14.

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Oct. 1, 2018: Protesters try to break a security barrier in front of the Spanish government's local office in Girona, Spain, on the first anniversary of a banned referendum on secession that was marred by police violence.JOSEP LAGO/AFP/Getty Images



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Feb. 16, 2019: Demonstrators holding signs saying 'free political prisoners' and 'self-determination is not a crime' rally in Barcelona to protest against the trial of former Catalan separatist leaders.PAU BARRENA/AFP/Getty Images

Of course there are young people in Catalonia, but it seems that when youngsters are outnumbered by their elders, when the centre of gravity of a society ceases to be in the late teens and moves toward the 30s and beyond, the society becomes more peaceful. Not all young societies are violent, but pretty much all violent societies are young. Bangladesh and El Salvador may both be relatively young countries (median age about 25), but they have very different murder rates: The latter’s is about 30 times that of the former’s. But it is hard to find a country with a high murder rate where the median age is high. Most countries with older populations are rich, it’s true, but Bangladesh and plenty of others prove that relative poverty need not result in violence; youth is a much better predictor than poverty.

Much of youthful Latin America continues to be violent, but it is starting to age. In Mexico, the median age has risen from 17 to 28 in the past 40 or so years, yet its rate of violence remains high. The authorities tackling the problem have at least got demography working in their favour, but it cannot do all the work where the forces of law and order are particularly incompetent or corrupt.

Median age of population, by country,

1950 vs. 2015

Under 15

15 - 20

20 - 25

25 - 30

35 - 40

Over 40

30 - 35

1950

2015

MURAT YÜKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL,

SOURCE: UNITED NATIONS

Median age of population, by country,

1950 vs. 2015

Under 15

15 - 20

20 - 25

25 - 30

35 - 40

Over 40

30 - 35

1950

2015

MURAT YÜKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL,

SOURCE: UNITED NATIONS

Median age of population, by country, 1950 vs. 2015

Under 15

15 - 20

20 - 25

25 - 30

30 - 35

35 - 40

Over 40

1950

2015

MURAT YÜKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: UNITED NATIONS

The general link between aging populations and declining criminal violence is true also of political violence. Catalonia is but one illustration of this point. When Sri Lanka faced a similar situation to that of Spain, with an ethnic/national minority wishing to break away, the situation became violent. In 1983, a civil war broke out that dragged on in one form or another for almost 30 years and claimed the lives of as many as a hundred thousand people. When the war started, the median age in Sri Lanka was about 20; by the time it ended, it was about 30. Decades of moderately low fertility rates and rising life expectancy had changed the age composition of the country. By the second decade of the 21st century, Sri Lankans were getting too old for civil war, and the violence petered out. The military triumph of the state had something to do with ending the conflict, but so did demography. A similar story can be told of the Balkans; today, the median Bosnian is more than a decade older and wiser than when Yugoslavia broke up, and for all the simmering tension in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo, violence remains suppressed.

The same is true of the Middle East. When civil war broke out in Lebanon in the mid-1970s, the country had a median age of about 20. Almost 40 years later, civil war broke out in neighbouring Syria, where the median age was still in the early 20s. By now, however, the median Lebanese is approaching 30. This does not necessarily make Lebanon a peaceful or prosperous country, but it does mean that it expresses at a social level a reluctance to get into a fight, making violence less likely. The pressures on Lebanon during Syria’s civil war were immense. Hundreds of thousands of refugees entered a country ill-prepared to house them. The ethnic tensions in Syria were reflected in Lebanon, with similar fissures between Sunni and Shia Muslims and Christian and Druze minorities. The same external powers, in particular Iran and Saudi Arabia, were trying to wield influence. It seems extraordinary that Lebanon, an already fractured entity, did not revert to violence. That it did not has a lot to do with the age composition of its population.

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Beirut, 2018: A Lebanese woman holds a picture of her husband, left, and two brothers who ment missing during the 1975-90 civil war in Lebanon.Bilal Hussein/The Associated Press

There are obvious reasons why middle-aged and older people are less inclined to violence – political or criminal. Males, usually the instigators of violence, have less testosterone circulating in their bodies – perhaps half the biological peak (which kicks in around the age of 20) by the time they reach the age of today’s average Spaniard (which, as we have seen, is well over 40). They often have spouses or partners and children, homes and mortgages or rents to pay, giving them more to lose. The inverse relationship between age and conflict is not just common sense and anecdote; quantitative studies covering decades-long periods show that there was almost no civil conflict in countries where 55 per cent or more of the population was older than 30.

Family size plays a role too. It has been argued that where a woman has fewer sons, she is less willing to sacrifice them. To use the example of Lebanon again, in the late 1950s, when the children being born would fight the civil war 20 years later, the fertility rate was not much short of six, meaning there were plenty of women having four or more sons. By the mid-1980s, when the children who may have fought in the Arab Spring were being born, Lebanon’s fertility rate was about 3½. The suggestion that women with four sons may not mind losing one or two in the national cause may be offensive to my own sister, two of whose four sons have spoken of entering the military, neither with much encouragement from their mother. Nevertheless, smaller families are associated with an older and more peaceful society.

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British soldiers ride on a train through France circa 1914-15. Europe's youthful population in the 1910s included a large contingent of young men of fighting age.Library of Congress

Digging back further into history, we can see the same phenomenon at work. In 1914, when European politicians were under pressure from bellicose populations, Europe was a young continent. Dramatic recent declines in death rates and only the start of falling fertility rates meant that teens and twenty-somethings predominated and were quick to go out into the streets to celebrate what seemed like a great adventure when war broke out. Today’s more peaceful Europe is often attributed to political institutions, especially those of the European Union, although these days they seem to produce more contention than harmony. The real reason tensions such as Brexit or Italy’s spat with France will not imaginably become violent is that the societies in which they are occurring are just too mature.

Sipping my coffee in Portbou alongside the retirees on a mild day in October and comparing the place with the charged atmosphere I remember from Israel on the eve of the First Intifada or Serbia at the height of its regional wars in the mid-nineties, this did not seem like a place about to descend into violence. Demography is a big part of the reason why. Closer to my other home, in London, it is notable that among 33 London boroughs, the one with the highest murder rate has the second-youngest median age, while the two with the lowest murder rate are among the four oldest.

As we move to an older world, we should move to a more peaceful one. The general decline in violence – although part of a more general long-term pattern – will continue to enjoy the tailwind of demographic trends for the foreseeable future. We may bemoan the pressures on health-care services and pensions and wonder who is going to pay for it all, but we can and should be grateful not only that people are living longer, but that our generations will not have to face the prospects of war our parents and grandparents had to endure. And as aging is happening just about everywhere, we can look forward to the day when violent strife between the still-young countries of sub-Saharan Africa or the Middle East becomes as unimaginable as between the senescent societies of Europe and North America.

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Demonstrators hold portraits of jailed Catalan separatist Oriol Junqueras and wave Catalan pro-independence Estelada flags during a protest in Barcelona on Feb. 16, 2019.LLUIS GENE/AFP/Getty Images

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