One of most popular memes on the blogosphere involves how the west will fall because of its aging and shrinking population, and many hare-brained schemes about how to ‘reverse things’. Nobody is denying that demography, the demographic profile to be precise, is a bitch. It is however not obvious to most people that the problems are much deeper, systemic and widespread than they can imagine. This post is then just a primer on what I will talk about in subsequent posts on this topic.
Before we broach this subject, let us clarify a few things:
1] The demographic decline is universal. Every developed, or in many cases developing country in the world, is experiencing a reduction in # of kids/ woman. Even countries such as Turkey, Iran, large. parts of South India now have barely replacement or below replacement birth rates. Indeed the birth rates in urbanized parts of China were already close to replacement rates when the one child policy was started. Taiwan and Korea have very low birth rates even though they do not have a one child policy. The issue then is: when did the decline begin (timing)? It did start in the west after the post-war baby boom, before it reached other countries after a couple of decades (or more). It is that delay which has huge implications.
The lead of the west in the process of demographic decline has huge implications, beyond what most of you can comprehend. The reasons behind “beyond what you can comprehend” have to do with technology that is evolving faster than most people realize. While popular technologies such as stem cells repair of brains, genomics, proteomics, neurons on a chip etc.. have not lived up to their hype- many other technologies (often not noticed by most of you) have kept on advancing quietly. I will blog about them in the future.. It is the combination of these technologies, human attitudes/ reactions and possibilities that make the future so unstable and interesting.
2] This decline has coincided with a number of factors: feminism, loss of manufacturing jobs, massive social changes, a breakdown of traditional institutions and a general repudiation of the old. However one aspect of its effect have been largely ignored namely: the breakdown of the traditional life cycle.
Let me explain that concept a bit.. See, for most of our semi-stable civilized existence we had a fairly consistent lifecycle. Now there were exceptions to that cycle, but they were by and large a minority. The life cycle of most humans in reasonably civilized societies were: lots of siblings, some infant mortality, some school/ training, skilled/ semi-skilled jobs, marriage in late teens/ early 20s, many kids, responsibility, unhappy marriage, stress, reasonably stable if pathetic jobs, health problems due to abysmally bad doctors, death in late middle age to mid 70s. This idyllic existence was briefly punctuated by wars, epidemics and other natural disasters- but otherwise life went on. Now things could go much worser and they often did, but by and large, this existence was the best people could aspire for.
However the secondary and tertiary effects of the industrial revolution changed that for good. Now it was possible for even average people to have a decent lifestyle, control their reproduction and get decent health care. Now we still had wars, some very nasty ones.. but the technology and demographic profile to recover was still there. It is the later part of the tertiary industrial revolution (after the 1960s) that things started changing in even more fundamental ways. The technological changes, increase in productivity and diffusion of technology made things even more interesting.
Today we lack a clear life cycle model. Everything from divorces to career instability caused by technology has made planning for the future and acting in good faith a very bad idea. It is this lack of a clear life cycle model that has incredible implications for the future.. depending on the course of events it turn out better than we can imagine or much worser than our darkest dreams.
In my next post, I will delve into the second part of my clarifications regarding the demographic problem and human reactions to disturbances in status quo.
I often think up questions that have no easy answers, and this is one of them-
Throughout most of human history, people had a defined and fairly unchanged existence. Even the changes caused by civilization and industrialization were in many respects glacial and superficial compared to what we are have experienced since ww2.
People born after ww2, in the west and prosperous east, are the first cohort of people born to not experience large scale wars, famine, anarchy and many other ills of the past. They are also the first to have a lifestyle and technology that has not stressed their body, essentially slowing down the aging process. Look at pictures of 60 year olds from past eras, and now..
It is very likely that inexpensive medical technology will allow many to live longer and less dependent lives in their old age. The generations born after 1970 might be even more luckier in that respect. Events in the last decade have also helped destroy many prevalent dogmas, by destroying them with the light of reality. For Luddites and naysayers: Could you have predicted the events of the last 150 (or especially the last 70 years) based on all of human history till then.
However the course of technological developments, human behavior and chance has created scenarios that we have no precedent for. These include reliable and accessible contraception, women in the workforce, unstable jobs, unstable relationships, legalism, biased laws, adverse demographic profiles and a whole host of other issues.
If we had pre-ww2 technology, people could have somehow muddled through these contradictions. But that is not the case. There is no way back .. and therefore the real is- what is the way forward? I have my own views on this subject, but I would like to hear from my readers.
A lot of the problems and pathologies of our times are not due to technological progress, but the inability of human culture to accommodate it. Remember that human culture is largely based on concepts and ways created in an age unlike the one we live in.
I am trying to get you to think about and answer a simple question:
How do you ensure that most human beings are not disillusioned with the life they have and continue to play nice?
We live in system that is much more complex than our old social and cultural ways can handle. However it will collapse without active involvement. The complexity of this system, previously unheard possibilities combined with human behavior if it fails also ensured that there are no real survivors, and the process can be drawn out over a generation. The status quo cannot hold, but what can replace it?
An example: What will keep most men motivated to work themselves to death, when they have no advantage in doing so. The current dating and marriage markets are fucked. Kids have no social pressures to care for you in your old age. Your competence or ability in your job have no correlation with rewards, or any occupational security. Most people are a paycheck or two away from a downward spiral. The “elite”, whom many of you look upto, are busy sucking you dry with the active help of your elected officials.
While some of these conditions were present through most of history in feudal societies, they did not have the irreversible complexity, myriad possibilities, technology and communications that we now have. It also helped that they had very basic needs and simple supply chains, with high fertility rates. You see the problem..
Put another way, why would most men live an old fashioned married life of quiet desperation, unhappiness and misery now that there is no motivation to go through the whole career, marriage, kids, society sham.