There has been much discussion recently about declining birth rates in the Western world and the demographic crisis that must inevitably result. Commentators often point out that the projected age distribution thirty years from now — with old people far outnumbering the young — will be catastrophic. No nation in history has ever faced such a reproductive decline and survived. No matter how fertility patterns change in the near future, we are told, it is too late to halt the slide into demographic senescence.
Such gloomy predictions overlook an even gloomier possibility: a rise in the fertility rate among people of breeding age is only one way that the age distribution of a population might assume a more normal curve. This is not something any of us wishes to contemplate. No one in his right mind wants to consider the possibility that the upper end of the age distribution will be culled until the ratio of young to old returns to a level that can be socially and economically sustained. Yet, given present political trends, this seems an increasingly likely outcome.
More than three years ago I posted a speculative analysis of possible scenarios for the “demographic winter” that will inevitably face the Western world. That essay was written several months prior to the collapse of the real estate bubble and the onset of the Great Recession. Since then there has been no sign that the best-case assumptions I outlined will ever come to pass.
Despite an unprecedented sovereign debt crisis, the Western democracies have not substantially reduced their statutory obligations to the elderly and the retired, nor has the retirement age been adjusted upwards significantly in most countries. The Baby Boomers are now entering retirement and claiming their expensive entitlements, while the diminution of the skilled taxpaying workforce is eroding the capability of the state to pay out future benefits without massive new borrowing.
The immigrants that are still being imported in large numbers to Western countries (a million or so have arrived in Britain since I wrote my previous analysis) will not pay enough in taxes to support the natives who are retiring. Research in several countries indicates that immigrants cost the state more in social benefits, medical care, law enforcement, etc. than they pay in taxes. The bankruptcy of the Western democracies can only be hastened by increasing the rate of immigration.
The newcomers, however, become reliable voters for the Socialist parties in whatever country they take up residence. In alliance with aging native Socialists, they provide an all but unshakeable majority demanding ever-increasing benefits and state-provided services. Reducing the level of benefits for retirees (and everyone else) thus becomes politically impossible.
This convergence of maladaptive political and social processes has recently become evident in Greece. The Greek government is attempting to implement a severe austerity regime which is designed to reduce the country’s unprecedented deficit and sovereign debt. Public sector wage and benefit cuts, pension decreases, the raising of the retirement age, and other unpopular measures are part of the package.
The Greek populace is adamantly opposed to such measures, and has taken to the streets in violent demonstrations to protest any further austerity. Strikes have become an almost daily occurrence, making the country unappealing as a tourist destination and further depleting the state’s tax revenues. Greece is on its way to becoming ungovernable, absent a military coup or some other intervention that does away with the normal democratic process.
The Greek present is a sober reminder of the future facing the entire West. Somebody had to go first, and due to their peculiar social, economic, and political conditions, it had to be the Greeks.
When democracy breaks down, an authoritarian regime of some sort is the only viable alternative to societal chaos. Different countries will realize authoritarian control through different means. A coup may be the most likely outcome in Greece. Under similar circumstances in the USA, a state of emergency will probably be declared, followed by martial law.
Once a non-democratic form of governance is installed, the grim, necessary, unpopular measures that could not be considered previously may then be implemented. As pointed out in the article below, the elderly members of society will be easier to victimize than young people, even if the geezers outnumber the punks by three or four to one. A thousand vigorous, angry, and armed young men present a more persuasive political argument than tens of thousands of weak and doddering old people in their rocking chairs, wheelchairs, and nursing home beds.
This is the grim and horrible calculus that may someday have to be employed by the hard men who take over the remnants of the state in a post-democratic world.
I hope I’m wrong about all this. Let’s pray that our feckless leaders somehow cast aside their fecklessness and cowardice. May they rediscover the qualities of true leadership that are necessary to see us through the looming crisis!
Unfortunately, the signs are not auspicious.