Then and now

overpopulationMy parents had it good. Actually they have it good. They have it much better than I have it now compared to when they were my age. I know, most of the older folks would disagree with me, but stick with my argument. How many people were living on planet earth when my dad was 21? Any guesses? Well, less than 4 billion. When I was 21? More than 6 billion. In the ‘70’s not many people traveled, today moving across country boundaries for a job is not a big issue anymore.

So what does the world population have to do with my parent’s work ethic and hard work over many decades? We need to take a broader sociological approach before you will understand what I’m saying.  Then we can see the bigger pattern, or the forest for the trees.  In our own, personal situation it might feel that our success is due to our own ingenuity and hard work.  We see the phenomenon on a daily basis.  If I fail this math test, it is not because I did not study, it is because the teacher set the test too difficult.  On the other hand, if I passed the test, it is obviously due to my superior intellect and hard work.  If Johnny throws a packet out his car window I immediately ascribe his fundamental nature to the act.  I believe that Johnny is a filthy polluter who doesn’t care about the environment.  What I do not do is to consider any other motives Johnny might have had.  He might have discovered a snake in the packet and rid himself of the danger as soon as possible.  But when we find ourselves in a similar situation we can obviously justify our behaviour.   We call this the fundamental attribution error in social psychology.  It is a tendency for people to overestimate their own personal dispositions and underestimate the effect of the situation in explaining the end result.  Also see the actor-observer bias.  So how does this explain my parent’s hard work and my apparent laziness?  Our parents (baby boomers) do not think it is the situation they were in (global economic / population postwar factors) which contributed to their wealth, they believe it is due to their hard work and diligence.  Sure they probably did work hard, but if the system is working with you, it is much easier for many more people to reach those lofty goals. Unfortunately with the system working against you, your chances, statistically, are much slimmer.  Well, quite a lot. We live in a globalised world today where all these new people compete with me for resources. In my parent’s day they competed with fewer people, and less globalisation. A masters degree among my parent’s peers were nearly unheard of. If you had a degree, you had it made in life. Some of my uncles only had a grade 10 education, and they are financially well off today.

Today, when applying for the position of ‘bus boy’ in a restaurant, they actually want you to have experience – really? It makes sense when you are competing with 100’s of others who have been doing the job in a volatile economy. Want to be a new bus boy, well, bad luck. Today it is hard for someone in the social sciences field, after 5 degrees, to find work in their field because they have to compete with thousands more people who all have PhD’s. How do you pay to get to that level? Well, you have to compete with generational wealth. Many of generation X’s competitors might still live with their parents, or in accommodation owned by their family, their studies are easily subsidised because their overhead costs are close to zero, they have another generation supporting them until they eventually reach the top of their game, which is much higher than where the top was for their parents.

Having just moved to Melbourne I’ve noticed something intriguing. The invasion of the Chinese (and the rest of Asia as well) into Australia. When apartment hunting you compete with a rich Chinese mother renting an apartment for her son who will probably end up finishing his PhD in a few years. This Chinese mother just waits for all offers to be made, and then says she will double whatever the highest offer was. Who can compete against that? In Melbourne, 25 years ago, middle class people who owned a house could easily and safely borrow against that house and buy a second investment property, which many did. Today they own the rental market. Their children become property barons, and today no middle class person can afford to buy, unless you shackle yourself to a life long, overpriced, interest volatile mortgage. The people who survive easiest are the ones who have extensive family support and family wealth (or dubious means and connections). There is property handed down by generations, established businesses handed over to the children, and these family structures thrive. Unfortunately many people don’t like operating in this way, and their children have no choice.

It sounds like I am complaining. No. I’m observing. I think there are two things which I would wish for. Firstly, I wish that as a planet we could become more responsible. We will not be able to sustain the current world population indefinitely. The earth’s resources are running out, and we are increasing in number. How we solve this problem is beyond me, but if we don’t solve it, it will probably solve itself in a way that most of us will not like. Secondly, I hope that if I ever have a child, that I would be able to sustain them past the point where I was supported, because they will live in a very different world to the one I found my feet in.