• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.

Title

Hypothetically…

Looking back at the present.

October 9, 2019
 
 

I saw a “climate fiction” author speak at Brookdale on Tuesday, and it got me thinking about what a slightly wider-angle lens might make of what we’re doing now.

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that you’re in charge of an aging society. It faces a massive generation on the cusp of retirement, followed by a much smaller one in its peak earning years, followed by a larger one in early adulthood and a relative dearth of children.

And let’s say that you’re charged with ensuring the long-term survival and prosperity of that society. You aren’t tapping your fingers, waiting for the apocalypse.

What should you do?

I’ll put it more starkly. Let’s say that you’re facing a huge influx into retirement on one end of the life cycle, with a relative shortage of young children on the other end. And just to make things more interesting, let’s assume an anti-immigration political mood, so you can’t bring in enough young people to make up for the birth shortfall.

What’s your best long-term move?

Assuming a smaller group of future workers supporting a larger group of future retirees, would you want to enhance or reduce the productivity of those workers?

I would think that your best bet would be to do whatever you could to ensure that future workers would be as productive as possible. All those retirees will need support, and both Social Security and Medicare are pay-as-you-go systems.

As a country, though, we’re going the opposite way. A small slice of young people are being cultivated intensively, but most are getting much less than previous generations did. And they’re being saddled with much greater debt for their troubles, making entrepreneurship that much more difficult. It’s hard to take big economic risks when you have student loans to pay.

We know from Japan’s experience that a rapidly aging society with low immigration can stagnate economically for a long time; the historical record on that one is clear.

In this context, there’s any number of moves that could brighten future prospects. Strengthening public education, both K-12 and higher ed, should be obvious, as should making college cheaper. Decoupling health insurance from employment would make it much easier for folks to start their own companies, which is where most growth happens. Done right, it could also prevent the spirals into bankruptcy that many medical bills occasion, as well as the ridiculous suffering that happens when illnesses and injuries go untreated until they’re undeniably worse. We could get rid of more arbitrary barriers to employment, like, say, ensuring that LGBTQ people can’t be fired just for being who they are. And obviously, we could once again welcome immigrants; they tend to be much younger than the native population, and their record of entrepreneurship is well established. I want the next Sergey Brin to come to America, so the next Google starts here. And the next one, and the next one.

I can imagine plenty of worthwhile debates to be had about how best to achieve some of these goals. But the goals themselves seem pretty clear. If getting older has taught me anything, it’s that time passes whether you give it permission or not. Underinvestment now will catch up to us; there’s a pretty solid argument to be made that it already is. (“Millennials are destroying the housing market!” No, they’re broke.)

In the daily swirl of events, it can be easy to lose track of this stuff. But imagining a history of this era written, say, 20 or 30 years from now, it’s hard not to see it. As a culture, we’re eating our seed corn. That doesn’t end well.

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