Thursday, 16 January 2014

The Future Belongs to those Who Are there to See it


Director Woody Allen once made a comment that quickly went from witticism, to accepted truism, to cliche with amazing speed, that 80% of success is just showing up.  I've heard an interesting corollary, I believe first offered by contrarian writer John Derbyshire that the future belongs to those who show up for it.  Derbyshire made the remark in discussing the dysgenic fertility patterns in the developed world (Europe, the US, Japan).

A few years before I was born, a famous (infamous) book appeared, The Population Bomb, by the Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich.  In 1968, Ehrlich observed the rapid population growth of the post-World War 2 world, and delivered a canonical, Malthusian prediction of what the world would become in our lifetimes - overcrowded, starving, and war-torn over natural resources.  Much of what Ehrlich prophesied should have occurred by now.

But, much like the suppositions of "Back to the Future" of a world powered by Mr Fusion devices, or "The Jetsons" of flying bubble cars, much of what Ehrlich proposed did not come to pass.

In fact, much of the developed world has a sort of opposite pathology, and that is, that the West plus Japan (and now, China) are no longer producing sufficient numbers of children to remain stable.

Yesterday, the vital statistics for 2013 in France were released, and France in 2013 had a fertility of 1.99 live births per woman.  That number actually put France near the top for the EU, with Germany and Italy being strong laggards, at about 1.3 per woman.  (The US was in 2012, just above the 2.1 necessary for replacement, but as I pointed out here, much of that is being driven by the children of immigrants, legal and otherwise.

One need not be a Fields Medal winner to reckon what that means, and hence, Derbyshire's remarks.

The local newspaper has ascribed some of the reluctance in France for couples to have children to the effects of the recent implosion of the French economy.  It's a sensible point- people should become more cautious about starting (or enlarging) their families when the economic footing is on slipper rocks.  But that only, I think, explains a part of the problem.  Germany - in much worse shape demographically than France - has a lower birth rate for its native population.

Governments are facing very difficult choices - for a start, the famous socialist compacts in Europe rest upon a quasi-Ponzi scheme to function.  SOMEONE has to work to pay for the benefits of pensioners who retire at 60.  Since the people have no interest in the proposed "austerity" (in France, Nicholas Sarkozy was tossed out in no small measure because he decided to fight with the unions and to reform the retirement system - he was replaced with someone perceived to be much more pliant to the needs of the unionists), the models only work if there is a growing workforce.

The French specifically and the Europeans more broadly are not up to the task.

Why is this?

Have we reached the point of affluence where children are seen as a nuisance to the BOBO lifestyle that dominates the popular media?  Think of the most popular movies, television programmes, and books.  How many of them contain any sort of "typical" (read: traditional) family models?  Children are just not compatible with a hipster lifestyle; they make it difficult to spend time tweeting about the latest "ironic" restaurant you are going to attend with your friends.

There is a movie now making the rounds in the US - "Her" - about a sort of post-modern lifestyle,  A man with a "hip" job, living in a "hip" apartment in the de-suburbanised future of Los Angeles, replaces actual human contact with a barely-concealed version of Apple's "Siri."

Apparently, only one child - shown occasionally, and living in the only single family home left in LA amid the glorious, post-ironic Utopia of high-rise apartments - appears in the movie.  Children are, I guess, not really going to exist in the future, save for as a sort of nostalgic reminder, rather like a rotary telephone in a museum.

The ideal future is a child-free one.  But then, there are also no old people, so maybe it will be OK.

Think also of the 'hot' places to live - San Francisco, or TriBeCa, or Williamsburg or Cobble Hill in (God forbid) Brooklyn.  "Walkable" areas marked by trendy restaurants and faux-antique hardware stores.  They are not family-friendly.  San Francisco - perhaps the pinnacle of hipness - has the fewest children per capita of any large American city.

The future belongs to those who show up, but that, apparently will not include creative classes.  The unpleasant task of having and raising a family will be outsourced.
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