The Cultural Roots of Our Demographic Ennui

Patrick Brown:

At times, it may feel like we’re living in P. D. James’s The Children of Men, but the Right Honorable Baroness might have gotten one thing wrong. Her story of a global epidemic of infertility finds the world caught in paroxysms of terrorism, xenophobia, and violent authoritarianism. But the soundtrack of a world without a future may turn out to be less the explosion of a pipe bomb in downtown London than the cool hiss of a suicide pod.

The rest of this century will feature every major nation seeking to manage population decline—a recipe for aversion to wasting precious warm bodies on the field of battle. Revolution and violence have a certain appeal to the young and dispossessed, but an older society with money in the bank has more to lose. Aging comfortably, rather than exerting power, will be the order of the day. And the back half of the twenty-first century may resemble less a rage against the dying of the light than an emotionless flip of the switch.

Many of the familiar, worrying demographic trends—shrinking birth rates, decliningmarriage, disaffiliation from religion, rising numbers of the elderly with fewer hands to care for them—are a result not of economic dislocation, but of affluence. More of our material needs are met, and surpassed, by the power of global commerce and the undeniable consumer benefits of modern-day capitalism. But this prosperity means we have fewer needs to be filled by the Tocquevillian institutions of civil society, the solace of religion, or the meaning of parenthood. The result? Decadence.

This poses new challenges for the approaches and institutions of the Right, broadly speaking. For millennia, the task for many religious leaders and institutions was to provide succor to those eking out a living from the soil, keeping their eyes fixed on heaven and the promise of eternal rest after toiling in this vale of tears. Now, the biggest task in front of them is figuring out how to speak compellingly about values beyond what the market can appraise.