Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Running out of people

I read a great essay from Mark Steyn, writing for National Review over the weekend: Elisabeth’s Barrenness and Ours. Steyn looks at the barrenness of Elisabeth in the Biblical account of the events leading up to the birth of Christ and places them in a modern context. I am quoting a large section here because it is just that good:
We now live in Elisabeth’s world — not just because technology has caught up with the Deity and enabled women in their 50s and 60s to become mothers, but in a more basic sense. The problem with the advanced West is not that it’s broke but that it’s old and barren. Which explains why it’s broke. Take Greece, which has now become the most convenient shorthand for sovereign insolvency — “America’s heading for the same fate as Greece if we don’t change course,” etc. So Greece has a spending problem, a revenue problem, something along those lines, right? At a superficial level, yes. But the underlying issue is more primal: It has one of the lowest fertility rates on the planet. In Greece, 100 grandparents have 42 grandchildren — i.e., the family tree is upside down. In a social-democratic state where workers in “hazardous” professions (such as, er, hairdressing) retire at 50, there aren’t enough young people around to pay for your three-decade retirement. And there are unlikely ever to be again.

Look at it another way: Banks are a mechanism by which old people with capital lend to young people with energy and ideas. The Western world has now inverted the concept. If 100 geezers run up a bazillion dollars’ worth of debt, is it likely that 42 youngsters will ever be able to pay it off? As Angela Merkel pointed out in 2009, for Germany an Obama-sized stimulus was out of the question simply because its foreign creditors know there are not enough young Germans around ever to repay it. The Continent’s economic “powerhouse” has the highest proportion of childless women in Europe: One in three fräulein have checked out of the motherhood business entirely. “Germany’s working-age population is likely to decrease 30 percent over the next few decades,” says Steffen Kröhnert of the Berlin Institute for Population Development. “Rural areas will see a massive population decline and some villages will simply disappear.”

If the problem with socialism is, as Mrs. Thatcher says, that eventually you run out of other people’s money, much of the West has advanced to the next stage: It’s run out of other people, period.
We are rapidly becoming in the West a childless culture. A culture that see children as a burden or obligation rather than a joy and a blessing. As women are encouraged to delay or eschew childbearing and modern medicine continues to extend life spans, we are becoming a culture with more grandparents than grandchildren. America is lagging Europe here, as we lag so many other cultural declines where Europe is the undisputed leader but that is largely thanks to our stubborn religious heritage. Each year sees fewer and fewer Americans getting married and those that do marry do so later in life and put off raising a family until the very last second, often waiting too long which then necessitates artificial methods to conceive.

On our current trajectory we are going to be a country that builds nursing homes while shuttering schools, a bankrupt country at that, as a shrinking pool of workers tries to support unsustainable social spending on the elderly. Of all of the threats to American prosperity, demographics is one of the greatest and the most subtle. It is tragically ironic that one of the signs of our cultural “progress” will ultimately be the source of our cultural destruction.

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