To some people, the future will always be behind them. Rarely, however, has such gloom covered most of the western world at the same time. Even during those brief moments — the stagflation of the 1970s, for example — it faded with the crisis.
Today’s pessimism is more troubling in two ways. First, economics does not fully explain it. In the US, which is in its fifth year of recovery, the share of those who think their children will be worse off is the same as stagnant Italy. The trend predates the 2008 meltdown. Second, the rise of miserabilism coincides with the west’s latest technological revolution. Rarely has personal freedom, the west’s creed, been less stoppable. Yet our gloom appears to deepen. Is the west losing its grip on reality?
It would be tempting to say yes. The average westerner lives far longer, is far less affected by war and has vastly greater choice than any people in human history. To be alive and free ought to be a giddy privilege. Perhaps we are so historically ignorant in our bliss that we do not appreciate what we have. Maybe something deeper, the continuous distraction of technology, perhaps, has so altered our neural wiring that we are less capable of appreciating what is under our noses. Or perhaps we are so unimpressed with the quality of public life nowadays, we suffer that misery that can come only from self-knowledge. All are types of depression. Each, in one form or another, has been suggested as an explanation for the west’s gloom. None strikes me as a killer diagnosis.
A more plausible theory is to blame our angst on the rise of others. Among the many surveys of global attitudes, it is striking how consistently more optimistic Asians, Latin Americans and Africans feel than people in the west. It makes sense that people in China, India and elsewhere feel rosier about their children’s future. How could it be otherwise? Most people in the developing world start from such a low base that only catastrophe could prevent the rise of living standards. But it would be a stretch to blame western pessimism on that. A more global economy ought to be a net benefit to everyone. It should also be flattering. Today’s world is rising very much in the west’s image. Russian President Vladimir Putin and China’s communists notwithstanding, there is no ideological rival to democratic capitalism. Even Cuba is belatedly tiptoeing in from the cold.
What then, is the matter with the west? The answer is beguilingly simple. We are growing older. In economic terms that means secular stagnation. Japan is greying faster than the rest — its economic growth has also been slower for longer than that of any other wealthy country. But it is a matter of degree. The greyer we become, the less we save. The less we save, the less we invest. The less we invest the slower we grow. Modern technology ought to provide the answer, we are living longer so we should be working longer. However, politics stands in the way.
The less we grow, the more we squabble over budgets. From Spain to Canada, the old keep getting the better of the fiscal wars. France has a higher birth rate than most other European countries. But it devotes more than average of its resources to the old. One of the reasons François Hollande was elected president was that he pledged to restore the French retirement age to 60 from 62. In the UK George Osborne, chancellor of the exchequer, has exempted state pensions altogether from the spending cap on welfare. In the US, Medicare and Social Security gobble up a larger share of the federal budget each year. No party dares touch the retirement age — which is set to rise only at a glacial rate from the current level of 65.
The better the “grey lobby” does, the more it shortchanges our future. That, in turn, creates a backlash against politics as usual. In practice, that means blaming immigrants. One of the key drivers of the Tea Party, the National Front in France and the UK Independence party is their tendency to look for scapegoats. None is likely to take direct power. But they act as a block on those who can redress the declining worker-pensioner ratio. A crucial part of the remedy is to boost immigration. Stopping that from happening is a core aim of the anti-politics backlash. This, too, is a price of western gerontocracy.
There are other costs besides fiscal. Alfred Sauvy, the French thinker who invented the term “third world”, feared the west would turn into a “a society of old people, living in old houses, ruminating about old ideas”. There may be something to that. Nice though it is to watch the Rolling Stones perform, one cannot help noticing their creative days are over. But their cohort – the baby boomers – are still getting what they want. In Mick Jagger’s heyday, that meant rebelling against old mores. Today that means protecting retirement nests.
Of course, not every pensioner is well off — rising inequality affects all age groups. But as a block the baby boomers have been winning since they were born. They look like keeping that record until they die. The generations after them may not be so lucky. Polls show that the old are as worried about the future as any other age group. Perhaps this comes tinged with guilt. There is no mental disorder here. If the west as a whole thinks its best days are over, it must be related to the fact that for so many it is literally true.