According to recent estimates almost two-thirds of Pakistan’s population is aged under 30. This is a demographic fact that offers tremendous potential but also brings with it great risks and dangers; with the right support and opportunities, Pakistan’s young people could be a valuable resource generating growth and prosperity in the decades to come, but the absence of mechanisms through which to develop and harness their creativity and energy could also lead to the opposite outcome, with curtailed aspirations and stymied expectations leading to anger and frustration.

For years, overpopulation has been viewed as a shackle on development, with the assumption being that states lacking the capacity to cater to their citizenry will only be stretched even thinner as the demands of the populace grown. Following from this, countries like Pakistan have long been advised to tackle the ‘problem’ of overpopulation with the assumption being that a decline in the population growth rate will be accompanied by corresponding increases in educational attainment, healthcare provision, and access to economic opportunity for the citizenry. There is considerable empirical evidence to support this claim, and the case for it is strengthened by recognizing how there are virtuous cycles that can be generated by an intensive focus on these areas; for example, it is often pointed out that more education, particularly for women, is linked to lower birth rates and higher incomes.

While all of this is true, and while there are also other reasons for supporting population control (including the broader idea that women in particular should be able to exercise greater reproductive choice and bodily autonomy in a country like Pakistan), part of the problem with this approach is that it ignores what is arguably a more fundamental issue, namely the inequitable distribution of resources within the economy. When it is argued that a country lacks the resources to cater to a growing population, it is not simply a statement of calculated fact. Instead, it obscures the way in which some elements of the population have access to more resources than others and, to put it bluntly, how some lives are worth more than others. Often, arguments about curtailing overpopulation implicitly suggest that it is the poor and the have-nots in society, those who cannot support their children, that should refrain from reproducing. That such support could be provided through effective state intervention aimed at providing the poor with better opportunities is conveniently ignored.

There are obvious limits to the scale and range of public services a state can offer to its citizens, and catering to a large population inevitably involves large costs that would be unsustainable beyond a point. However, in a context like Pakistan’s, where investments in social development have consistently lagged behind economic growth, and where the state’s attempts to meet the needs of its people have always been perfunctory at best, it is problematic to assume that a reduction in population growth will automatically lead to better economic and social outcomes for everyone. As always, creating an environment in which citizens can prosper is not simply a matter of wishful thinking, high-sounding rhetoric, and believing in magical solutions to complex problems; it requires painstaking policymaking and, more importantly, the political will required to make the structural changes necessary to build more effective institutions.

Therefore, when considering the potential futures of Pakistan’s youth, it is important to remember that while young people can inject dynamism into the economy and society, they will only do so under conditions that facilitate their development. What this requires is investments in quality healthcare, education, and skills-development, all of which are recognized as being fundamental to the process of human development. Similarly, given the changes taking place in the global economy, with the shift towards automation and the use of artificial intelligence, it is imperative that the workers and leaders of tomorrow be equipped with the capacity to engage in the critical and creative thinking needed to engage in the knowledge economy.

Pakistan has the dubious distinction of being one of the country’s that devotes the fewest resources to education and healthcare. Indeed, the current PTI government has slashed these budgets even further in the name of austerity and is likely to keep doing so in the years to come. It is a country that refuses to even countenance the possibility of spending less on its military, is unwilling to undertake the admittedly difficult reforms necessary for making its institutions more efficient, and simply displays no appetite for tackling a parasitic economic in order to facilitate a more equitable distribution of resources in society. It is a Twenty-First century state still grappling with Nineteenth century problems, failing to even master the basics of taxation, the ability to provide uninterrupted electricity to its populace, or prevent the spread of diseases like polio that have been wiped out in the rest of the world.

At the same time, young people across the country understandably aspire to lead better lives and expect that the state will provide them with the means to do so. They look at what is happening in the rest of the world, they look at the more privileged sections of Pakistani society itself, and rightly ask why they should not have the right to live similar lives. Yet, what they find is a state that remains chronically inept and unresponsive, lacking direction and presiding over the slow collapse of an already dysfunctional social and economic order. Pakistan is indeed sitting on a demographic time bomb but this is not just because it has a large population; it is because preceding generations and the leaders they have produced have consistently failed to put the interests of the young before their own parochial agendas.