Monday, January 2, 2017

Barend Vlaardingerbroek: Ode to the Methuselah generation

Happy New Year! And may you enjoy many more. 

Many of us should, for the average life expectancy in many of the more developed Western countries (including NZ) has now exceeded 80. So most of us can now expect to outlive Methuselah.

But Methuselah lived to a thousand, or so some claim. 

You would look a bit worn out as you approached your 1,000th birthday… only he didn’t

The biblical record actually says 969. Nine hundred and sixty-nine what, though?

The ancients kept a record of the passage of time in various ways using different natural cycles including inundations of major rivers and the phases of the Moon. The narratives that were woven together in the course of the compilation of the biblical record pertaining to the earliest histories brought together a variety of time-recording traditions. Early translators simply substituted ‘years’ for the time units, giving rise to anomalies such as lineages of people whose life spans were expressed in the middle and high hundreds. The time unit associated with these records was almost certainly the lunar month. In which case Methuselah lived 969 lunar months – 78 of our solar years – a jolly good innings in his time.

So living to around 80 is something we Westerners have in common with the old chap. There’s one big difference between us and Methuselah, though. The old boy sired lots of kids, whereas we – particularly the middle classes – are mostly now breeding well below replacement rate. If we were some species of parrot or antelope, the IUCN would put us on the ‘critically endangered’ list. What has brought us to this impasse?

For my grandparents’ generation (late 19th century), children were the natural consequence of marital relations and no-one batted an eyelid at a family of around 10 kids. My parents’ cohort (between the world wars) still regarded having kids as par for the marital course but tended to put the brakes on after four or five. Then came us baby-boomers and two became the doctrinal norm. As for the millennial generation, they just don’t want to know. A report last year suggested that over-40s were having more babies than under-30s.

What explains this biological turn-around? The changes in women’s role in society certainly had a lot to do with it, but it is simplistic to suggest that women turned their attention from having families to having careers, as the two are not mutually exclusive. Rather, attitudes towards standards of living changed. The standard-setters became the educated nouveau-riche class that evolved in the 1970s – DINKS (‘dual income, no kids’).
Kids? You gotta be kidding…

In countries such as NZ and Australia where home ownership had been the norm, the housing market changed gear to the two-income couple. Remember the days in NZ when all a man needed was his two hands and a willingness to work and he could support a wife and family, and in their own house (courtesy of the State Advance Corporation) to boot? To a millennial, that scenario must appear as remotely removed from everyday reality as the world of old Methuselah. You need two decent incomes nowadays to even think about a house, and stay on them to pay off a whopping mortgage.

The second income rapidly became a necessity rather than a luxury. Alongside the new-age two-income couple emerged a new class of nouveau-pauvres – single-income families locked into a cycle of rent slavery and trying to make ends meet from what the landlord doesn’t take. Starting a family shortly after marrying as did earlier generations became an entry ticket to the poverty cycle.

Prevailing attitudes in the trend-setting sections of the community swung from child-positive to child-negative, even child-hostile. Children became vulgar intrusions in the context of the avant-garde lifestyle personified by the affluent, high-living DINKS. They became rarities in the gentrified parts of town. Restaurants patronised by the trendy set were effectively child no-go zones. Women with three or four youngsters in tow started getting filthy looks in the supermarket.

And yet most people who marry would like to have a baby or two (or even three) at some stage. The income/family size graph in Western societies typically tends towards a U-shape: the very poor and the very rich have the most children. Surveys have shown that a lot of in-between people would like to have a child or an additional child, but they simply can’t afford it. It’s not the direct costs of having children (bad enough as those are) but rather the fact that losing the second income spells a drastic decrease in the quality of life, if not financial ruin.

Some governments have been discussing ‘baby bonuses’ to try to turn things around. I’m sure these will be music to the ears of irresponsible people at the bottom of the socioeconomic pile who pump them out willy-nilly anyway in the expectation that the taxpayer will provide. But it’s the middle classes we need more babies from, as those tend to grow up to be the people who provide society with the bulk of the highly-skilled and professional workforces.

Here in the Middle East, birth rates have been dropping too, but the middle classes still believe in having several kids. Women can pursue both careers and motherhood because young children are looked after by housemaids/nannies who can be procured from the Philippines, Sri Lanka or any of a number of places in the region for around US$200/month plus keep. But there is growing international concern about this form of ‘domestic slavery’ – we certainly wouldn’t be allowed to go about things this way in Western countries (although it is not uncommon for Asian and Indian families to import domestic servants from their countries of origin, often in the guise of ‘relatives’).

In many Asian societies, the extended family comes to the rescue of young families. Women, particularly educated ones, can remain in the workforce because their own mothers and other female relatives do most of the child-minding. In the West, we have become so individualistic that we have largely turned our backs on the extended family and so we can no longer work this way.

We middle-class members of the Methuselah generation have done a great job of feathering our own nests but in the process we have devalued the natural family unit to the point where many of our own children (those that there are) are either unwilling or unable (for economic reasons) to fulfil their population replenishment role. We have created a reliance on immigration to make up for our shortcomings in the replacement stakes and then cringe when we see our national identities and cultures being undermined by people who don’t share our world outlook and values but do believe in biological productivity.

We need family-friendly policies so that those broadly middle-class people who would like to have kids but are economically constrained can do so. A return to the State Advance loan system would be a great start. Income-splitting for taxation purposes is another effective measure. Readers will no doubt be able to add to this list.

Some people, especially those without children, will protest on the basis that they don’t see why they should subsidise other people’s family formation choices. They have a point when one considers the tax money lavished on bludgers who make a habit of regularly turning out more welfare-dependency cases.  But children born into stable middle-class homes are a public good. Money spent on encouraging their production represents an investment in future human capital rather than a social welfare expenditure. Everyone benefits, so everyone should chip in. And if it works, it would lessen our dependence on immigration and thus go a long way towards averting the negative consequences of high-level immigration.

I’ll tick (B). We as a society need to have more babies – but we need to encourage our middle classes to produce them.

Barend Vlaardingerbroek BA, BSc, BEdSt, PGDipLaws, MAppSc, PhD is associate professor of education at the American University of Beirut and is a regular commentator on social and political issues. Feedback welcome at


Anonymous said...
Reply To This Comment

A film supporting these views is "Idiocracy".

Peter Caulton said...
Reply To This Comment

We have increased our population in a very short time by one and a half million and the prospect of more jobs with technology taking them is not good as our vision less politicians have not factored in infrastructure to cope with that reality. What are all these children going to do for a living if we breed them?
Ours and the worlds environment is in tatters with to much population and machines can more and more do the job that humans used to do so we need less people.What we do need is more control on corporations and greed hungry business men who are taking inordinate profits while dodging taxes like our last prime minister who was reported paying 2.8% tax on millions. Where can I get that tax rate?
Our tourist industry,one of our biggest, relies on an under populated country.Let us not fill it up with increasingly impoverished young New Zealanders.

Anonymous said...
Reply To This Comment

oooo! I can see a PC brigade invasion coming your way Barend. Your comment "when one considers the tax money lavished on bludgers who make a habit of regularly turning out more welfare-dependency cases" I agree whith you whole heartedly but will the minority PC groups accept it?

Post a Comment

Thanks for engaging in the debate!

Because this is a public forum, we will only publish comments that are respectful and do NOT contain links to other sites. We appreciate your cooperation.

Please note - if you use the new REPLY button for comments, please start your comments AFTER the code. Also, the Blogger comment limit is 4,096 characters, so to post something longer, you may wish to use Part 1, Part 2 etc.