ON 2015 - A SPECULATIVE ESSAY (September 2002)
Western society functions in a very short-sighted fashion. We use resources as quickly as possible, and although we know that arable land and mineral reserves are ultimately going to run out, we cross our collective fingers and say that advances in technology will rescue us. We never save to purchase the things we desire, we buy them on credit. The people we choose to manage our nations spend indiscriminately, while deferring billions or trillions of dollars in debt onto future generations. Humans are gifted with the capacity to comprehend cause and effect to an extent unique among living things, yet only a relative few put this ability to use.
One particular consequence of the past has been plain for twenty years, yet only recently has it been noticed by the media. The “Baby Boom” generation is nearing retirement age, and because Western nations in general have been able to substantially reduce their reproduction rate since the post-war years, those around middle-age now constitute a disproportionate percentage of the population. The effects of this range from amusing to grim, and will not only alter the world economy, but may also change our system of ethics.
Population surges have occurred in the past, but never on this scale, nor did most people live to an age where their physical and mental condition would significantly influence society. 2015 is the year when the number of individuals at or of retirement age will supersede Western society’s ability to support them using the present system. Most Western nations, however, began making changes a few years ago, diverting more revenue toward programs that target the elderly. This, of course, has already resulted in things such as larger deficits, increased taxation, and funding cutbacks in other areas. The problem being that as the aged are removed from the workforce, there are fewer people contributing taxes at a rate higher than their personal cost to the government, and a lower ratio of workers to retirees. At its peak, there will only be two persons in the workforce for each elderly individual requiring support.
The wealthy and powerful have been preparing for the economic difficulties ahead via the redistribution of wealth. A number of nations have cut taxes for the rich, and companies are taking a progressively larger profit margin. The gap between the rich and the masses continues to widen, effectively shifting the financial burden of our aging population onto the working class. Aware that the status quo must change, the elite intend to ensure that they are not the ones who must pay the price.
We won’t see the first major impact on social security programs until 2011, but the aging populace is already having an influence on Western society. People in their fifties are a significant demographic, constituting an important target market for industry, and a powerful voting block. Our culture is changing to conform to their present and future needs.
The problems associated with growing old were once private issues, but now there is a considerable amount of money to be made from the large number of people who need or desire products and services tailored to the elderly. Years ago, advertisers would never have dared to run commercials for adult diapers on shows other than “Lawrence Welk” or daytime “soap operas”. When the bulk of the population was younger, there was little motivation to formulate a pill to cause erections, but now Viagra has become a financial windfall; capitalizing on the “Boomer’s” vain attempts to cling to what they perceive as youthful behaviour. Hemorrhoid treatments, will kits, hearing aids, denture adhesives, and reverse mortgages are the trend in advertising, and soon it will include bargain cosmetic surgery, nursing homes, and eventually funeral services.
Another change we are seeing in marketing is the proliferation of prescription drug commercials. Dementia has begun to afflict the post-war generation. In some Western cultures, such as the U.S., the tradition of close family support has disappeared, often leaving people feeling alone and isolated. These two factors, among others, has led to a situation where people are willing to visit doctors and request drugs they saw on a television commercial, rather than rely on the old-fashioned method of having a physician diagnose a problem and prescribe a treatment based on years of training and experience. At no other time in history could pharmaceutical companies simply promote a drug without even telling people what it is for, and still make money.
The aforementioned loneliness prompts many individuals to visit clinics and emergency rooms, and this occurs more often with older patients because children have grown and moved on, and friends have passed away. Presently, the majority of visits to doctors are attributed to Hypochondria, and most of the remainder are due to psychosomatic disorders. Although the aging process naturally leads to physical deterioration and subsequent need for medical services, the psychological needs will put the greatest strain on the system. In countries that fund part or all of the health care requirements of seniors, the future promises to be very costly.
As we approach 2015 there will be more traffic injuries. When a significant percentage of drivers are elderly, the likelihood of injury increases due to fragile bones and preexisting health problems. As well, people over sixty-five are the most dangerous of drivers. Most people are aware that teenagers cost the insurance industry the most money, having more accidents overall; but when we look at the statistics broken down into crashes-per-kilometre driven, we find that age is worse than inexperience. When elderly individuals account for a greater number of drivers, they will contribute to more accidents overall. When seniors stay longer in the workforce because government subsidies have been reduced through necessity, their commutes will be longer, and statistically each person will have more accidents. Teenagers improve their driving skills with time, but the old only deteriorate.
Quite soon, Western cultures will begin to institute short-sighted solutions to the impending problems. It is obvious that tax revenue will ultimately fall far short of expenditures. Eventually, wages will have to increase due to a diminishing labour pool, which translates into smaller corporate profits, and consequently the threat of reduced political donations. These two factors alone are disturbing to politicians, for this will directly affect their personal income levels.
We should see a subtle shift in government attitudes toward reproduction, and there will be new tax incentives to indirectly encourage people to reproduce. The media will be fed information designed to cause concern over low fertility rates. This strategy is, of course, already too late; and destructive to humanity as a whole, on an overpopulated planet.
Industry will use a different tactic, and push for the relaxation of laws which restrict their ability to produce goods in the Third World. Corporate leaders see this as an opportunity to increase profits, and the coming labour shortage as a tool to manipulate government, for the Third World nations permit companies to ignore environmental concerns, and pay employees wages that are barely at or below a subsistence level.
The problem with this strategy is that governments are loath to allow a much larger number of the factories that fuel their economies to be located where foreign powers can exert control. Already it costs the U.S. and its allies a considerable amount to manipulate these nations via political pressure and military force. In the end, such a system results in those that carry the bulk of the tax burden, the middle class, pay to ensure maximum profits for the rich.
Eventually governments should realize that an open immigration policy is the solution to this particular problem. Such decisions are always met with resistance due to the undercurrent of racism that is inherent to all cultures, but material concerns have preeminence, and corporations will see an opportunity to reduce wages. In countries such as England and Germany, with a history of violent confrontations over immigrant workers, this will lead to serious social repercussions. In all Western nations the introduction of a significant number of people from diverse cultures will cause changes in the values held by our societies, and Christianity in particular will see its influence further eroded.
There is the potential for a backlash against workers from other countries. If nations fail to anticipate population trends, then shortly after 2015 wages will increase to attract employees from a limited labour pool. Prices will rise accordingly, with a negative impact upon those on a fixed income. As immigrants later arrive to offset the labour shortage, wages will fall, but as usually occurs under comparable circumstances, the cost of living will remain at the higher level. Many will blame the “foreigners” for the lower standard of living, but in reality it is the nature of capitalism to reap all that the market will bear regardless of who suffers.
Using our current system, a retirement age of sixty-five will become unworkable. Originally, the benchmark was established because average life expectancy was not much more than sixty-five years, and it was felt that the expense of supporting the minority who would live well past that age was easily manageable. Now medical science extends the human life-span far beyond retirement, and a modern-day sixty-five year-old in a Developed nation has the health and capabilities of a much younger person who lived when old-age pensions were introduced. Furthermore, some countries have a lower age at which women qualify for benefits, although they live longer than men. This patriarchal custom may have to end.
We will see an effort to raise the age of pension eligibility, but because such a large percentage of voters are nearing retirement, it will be politically risky. Governments will likely only raise the limit by a couple of years, if at all. A new set of periodic tests will be required for elderly drivers, administered to evaluate cognizance as well as physical condition; but likewise it will be difficult to institute new controls in the political environment of the future.
Each generation, upon reaching old age, contains an element that feels there is a debt owed to them by society. Any action they perceive as negatively affecting their standard of living is seen as an affront, and their opinion is generally expressed via the ballot box. Due to sheer numbers, and the fact that the mantra of the Baby-Boom generation is materialism, politicians will feel compelled to cater to this demographic as never before.
Barring a totally implausible phenomenon, such as a more equitable distribution of wealth or the demise of nationalism, the majority of people in the Western world will experience a decline in their standard of living. The degree to which this occurs depends upon the actions of government. The worst-case scenario would result from maintaining the status quo, with the current trend toward a two class society leading to widespread discontent and civil disobedience.
Of course, even the politicians of today could not be so blind as to fail to see the need for change. It is more likely that enough adjustments will be made to maintain order, and the masses will be led to believe that life is actually better. Although statistically the common man has become poorer over the past forty years, while the top five percent considerably richer, the majority believe otherwise. The pace will accelerate in the upcoming decades, but faith overrules truth, and because most people blindly trust in the information disseminated to the public, they will accept a belief over reality.
Times will be difficult after 2015 for those who do not belong to the ruling class, yet not intolerable simply because the elite need the peasants in order to maintain their position at the top; so they will act out of necessity. Whether we are young or old, we will struggle to get by, yet still persevere. We will see a more culturally and racially diverse society with its attendant problems. It will seem that everyone else on the road is driving very slowly with their turn signal perpetually on. Waits for medical services will be longer, and some life-extending procedures will no longer be available to the elderly - unless they are wealthy. Pensions will not keep up with the cost of living, and those that are indexed to inflation will follow suspect government statistics.
The danger society faces is the mindset that will develop. As is always the case, people only think in terms of the present, and fail to consider larger trends. During the decades following 2015, the world will adapt to a situation where the elderly are perceived as an impediment to people’s ability to provide for their own old age. Children born in the near future will grow to adulthood never knowing a time when the Baby-Boomers weren’t the most significant economic and social factor affecting their lives.
Even in the under-developed countries, where any imbalance in domestic age-groups is inconsequential, the West’s problems will change their way of life. In exchange for an almost negligible improvement in the standard of living, they will experience much higher levels of pollution from industry, and considerable foreign interference in their affairs. The best and brightest will be lured to jobs in the Developed world. The fear of the United States, that permeates cultures not under the control of the nation, will have a more solid foundation; for the West will have a greater reason to “protect” its economic interests. As demonstrated in the past, where countries such as Iraq and Panama were attacked primarily due to issues relating to energy and the transportation of commodities respectively, America is willing to use death and devastation as a means to an economic end, and it is far more likely to be used in the future when finances are less secure.
Eventually, the logical result of an aging generation is a climactic solution to the problem, for the “Boomers” shall reach the end of their life-spans. As the last of their generation enters retirement, the first will begin to die off. In a relatively brief period of time, the soaring death rate will free up considerable resources, and provided that Western society has not bred itself into a situation where the cycle repeats, there will be the potential for a major improvement in the lives of all citizens, in terms of what had occurred since 2015 - albeit at a lower standard of living than the one we enjoy now.
The mindset of the masses may be their downfall, for it is entirely likely that the ruling class will absorb most of the financial bounty, taking advantage of the fact that the average person is a creature of habit who will be oblivious to the economic turnaround. Being that, in the period in which intelligence has been monitored, humans have shown a continuous decline in mental acuity, each generation is subsequently less intelligent than the preceding one. When the “Boomer” generation, which accounts for such a large portion of the population, is gone, we will see a major drop in overall intellectual ability. Of course, in practical terms, due to the deterioration of the mind that commences in middle-age, this process is already well under way.
A great many variables can affect the future. Pandemic influenza could change the age ratio, being that when the flu causes death, it is most often in the very old and very young. A nation could provoke a nuclear war, and as is now the case with modern warfare, the civilian casualties would far outnumber the military ones. A cheap and effective treatment for cancer or heart disease could be discovered, and if made available to the general public, would ultimately collapse the world economy under the weight of a population that lives significantly longer.
If nothing of consequence happens to alter our destiny, the people of the Developed nations will find themselves at a pivotal point, which may determine the future balance of power in the world. In the past, empires solved their domestic economic problems by going to war, ideally suffering a high casualty rate of their own in order to reap the benefits of a greatly reduced workforce striving to keep up with a strong demand for resources and labour: to both sustain the conflict and rebuild. In an age of nuclear and biological weapons, a war on the scale necessary to fulfill the needs of government would entail incredible risks, and one would hope that this is not an option under consideration.
The balance of power, however, is not just controlled by military might. The Roman empire, for example, went out with a “whimper” rather than a “bang”. Although they possessed great military power, domestic pressures, due to a dependence on an expansionist form of economy, caused a collapse from within. Capitalism also depends on an ever-increasing market, and a growing population that does not consume at an increasing rate, while directly contributing toward and/or participating in the production of goods and services, throws the system out of kilter.
The next few decades could portend the rise of a new empire. The cycle has been consistent since the beginning of civilization; as each one runs its course, a new power arises to fill the void. Perhaps the Western empire is due; already it persists only through faith: with the belief that the value of its currency symbolically represents the equivalent in labour and commodities, and the trillions of dollars owed to the world have a potential value greater than that of the paper they are printed on. Being that the West’s standard of living is financed entirely by debt, since it has been impossible for any member-nation’s government to cover what they consume in monetary terms, it can be said that the West lives on charity. Granted, the implied threat is that death and destruction awaits any entity wishing to cut off aid or foreclose on a debt, but the metaphorical value of any debtor nation’s currency is dependent upon the expectation of increased productivity, and military force requires the support of one’s own citizens. If the masses lose faith in the future, and in the decisions made by the ruling class, then it becomes very difficult to finance warfare. Throughout history, a small minority of incredibly rich ruling over a vast peasant class has not boded well for the elite.