May 17, 2021

Have we given up on the future?

Gerard Smith
Managing Principal

There has been a lot of comment recently about the US 2020 census and in particular the impact that the data will have on the political scene, as some states lose representation and others gain. The COVID pandemic is also reported to have further depressed the birth rate in 2020, continuing a downward trend in births evident in the US since 2007. We have dwelt on this more generally here and earlier, more specifically here.

But our focus here is to consider some longer-term implications of the declining birth rate because these demographic outcomes reflect sociological and economic factors which could become further entangled in the future. And while evidence suggests that economic uncertainty has played a role in negatively affecting the birth rate, it is not the only causal factor, and the relationship is by no means consistent. Is there something larger at play here—might there be a fear of the future itself?

Here’s a simplified assessment: The ‘modern’ is a progressive (postwar?) hopeful outlook, that sees us moving forward on a fairly substantial footing, with science and reason giving us greater freedoms, democratic institutions, and continuous improvements contributing to a better quality of life. It is characterized by ‘mass’ – mass markets, mass media, mass production, mass transport, mass culture – and a more or less commonly accepted view of history. Sociologist  Anthony Giddens describes modernity as “vastly more dynamic than any previous type of social order. It is a society—more technically, a complex of institutions—which, unlike any preceding culture, lives in the future, rather than the past.”

But has our bargain with the future been compromised, as the things that the ‘modern’ has given us—globalization, consumerism, growth in economic activity and energy consumption, climate change, secularism, the internet, a digital economy, and social media—have also created a steady fragmentation – of markets, of media, even and perhaps especially, of beliefs and ‘truth’? The resulting erosion of foundational solidity seems to have driven a more fluid, relativist ‘postmodern’ outlook, where there is ambiguity, less optimism, and a more provisional perspective. Which might have taken the gloss off the future and go some way to explaining a generational reluctance to have children.

It is, of course, possible that what we’re witnessing is a cyclical birth lull, which will reverse itself over time, as the economy strengthens or as the government provides greater help to working families. But if not—if this is a long-term secular trend rather than a soon to be forgotten cyclical lull—then we can expect a bumpy ride. First, a slowdown in population growth (and especially an absolute decline), will lead to lower or negative economic growth; and as the population ages, the ‘burden of dependency’ grows, placing even more economic productivity pressure on the younger, working age cohort.

 Our social programs are underpinned by faith in the future—that’s what keeps the music going as it were. But it’s easy to imagine generational conflict causing the music to stop, for the younger generation to reject the existing contract and demand that a new one be written. It likely wouldn’t happen overnight, but it would be a profound political upheaval and could reshape all of our institutions, our global relations, and the lives of many future generations.

To be sure, the US is not the only rich nation worrying about its declining birthrate.  It’s been a concern across Western Europe and Japan for at least two decades. China is grappling with both a declining birthrate and a  gender imbalance – both resulting from its draconian one-child policy.   

Shakespeare wrote, “The world must be peopled.”  It’s just as true in the US today.  Our economic growth, our productivity, our competitiveness and, to come full circle, our very hope for the future depends on it.


Comments  | 

John Cartwright
Great post Gerard. Very thought provoking. I do wonder if maybe also at play, which you alluded to, is the impact that the digital age is having on our very concept of time/the “future”. If everything is “now”, and the value of time is diminished, why even acknowledge the future? Rather than fearing the future, do we risk ignoring it entirely (until it’s too late)? But you are right: this will definitely have ramifications for future generations.
Very interesting piece - would be fascinating to see trend data for the responses to your survey Is it the case that in areas where people have a faith ( ie less secular societies ) the birth rate remains high ?
Thanks Julian Good to hear from you – hope you are well – took me a while to understand why you had written at 3.45am! The short answer to your question is yes – in less secular societies birth rates are higher – but they are lower everywhere. And it’s complicated. I would refer you to the World Values Survey Cultural Map -, and the World Bank data site for fertility rates- Hope this helps. Stay in touch, best regards Gerard