Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Old Lessons for New Problems

“The sum of intelligence on the planet is a constant; the population is growing.”

When I studying Economics in college, we often debated these two big issues facing the future of the economy: what to do with all the leisure time people would have (thanks to the declining work week), and what to do with all the extra people created by the population explosion.

Now, three decades later, no one even uses the term “leisure time,” much less wonders what to do with all of it. Not only did the workweek not fall to 35 hours a week, then 30, but society has shown amazing creativity is filling whatever time we have. Thanks to wi-fi, the cell and the Blackberry, we can fill any spare moments with work, but also, we have managed to take the leisure out of leisure time. Think, for instance, of the working mom who is driving her kids to the Math-nasium and then retrieving the family wiener dog from “doggy’s day out.” Not exactly leisure. In fact, I think we need a new word for “leisure time” spent doing work-like activities. We could use a compressed version of leisure work – i.e., “lork” -- but I’ve been using “errk.” This is errand-work, and I like how it sounds, like the “irk” in “irksome.”

So, we have increased the workweek and added in many new errks, pretty much doing away with leisurely leisure.

But what about the other bugaboo of my econ education, overpopulation? It was in 1968 that Paul Ehrlich’s book “The Population Bomb,” escalated the metaphor of a population “explosion” forward into “bomb.” This created sci-fi images of a biological weapon where babies would be sprayed into your home, screaming and angry and looking to suck down your food supply along with everyone else’s. However, while I wasn’t paying attention, the problem solved itself.

What got me thinking about the old baby bomb was reading a recent “Trends” report (trends-magazine.com) that reviewed the research on population trends. You probably heard that the Europeans were facing declining populations, but it’s not just Europe. Worldwide, there are six million fewer children under seven than there were in 1990. Six million fewer children.

Take a look at some of these birthrate numbers, and put them in context of the “replacement birthrate” of 2.1 (which is the average number of children a woman must bear to keep the population constant):

Canada: 1.55
Japan: 1.37
China: 1.39
Korea: 1.17

Even in Italy, where you’d expect those big Catholic families, the birthrate is 1.26.

In the U.S., the birthrate is 2.01. As for Mexico, I quote the “Trends” report: “It’s one of the last countries on Earth most people would expect to face a population shortage. However, its fertility rate has already fallen to 2.5. And, it’s dwindling so fast that it too will soon drop below the replacement rate.” The report adds, “This means that the flow of immigrants from Mexico, which America depends upon for cheap labor and to keep the size of its own population from falling, will soon be reduced from a torrent to a trickle.”

So there we have it, another problem blinded by science (in this case, effective birth control), and by the absence of the other problem we started with, leisure time – after all, working women want smaller families.

These days what they are worrying about in college Econ classes is how to deal with the decline in spending and tax revenue from having fewer young people. Clearly, economists need to spend more time at the mall. Just as work and the new near-work crowded out leisure, we can count on new types of spending to make up for the feared decline in consumer spending.

We can count on the ingenuity of the marketplace to create new “necessities” on which to spend money, including the endless supply of expensive new “errks” that we’ll need – if they’re good enough, they’ll keep the younger generations from dwelling on all the mistakes of my generation.

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2008 by King Features Syndicate, Inc.

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