Chapter 1 addresses the last 30 years, about the span of one generation. This section will take a close look at today’s generation gap and elaborate the differences between your experience and that of your parents or children. Demographers categorize the people living today into six “generations” according to their birth; refer to the chapter timeline.
A. Work, School, And Leisure
The decades after World War II were the “Golden Age of Full Employment” in the industrial world. 2 Generations up to the Baby Boomers could expect lifelong job security from a high school diploma. In today’s gig economy, one out of four Americans and Europeans work “independently” as freelancers or with multiple part-time jobs. 3 Examples of such freelancers include web designers, consultants, graphic artists, home health care providers, drivers and deliverers, and solo accountants and lawyers.
It is difficult to pinpoint this trend in time, but it seems to have become prevalent only this century. The job market thrived in the hot economy of the 1990s. The recessions of the ‘00s created extended periods of high unemployment. People without jobs had no choice but to capitalize on their own talents. Meanwhile, the cost of health care and retirement plans ballooned, 4 encouraging many employers to cut back permanently on full-time employees.
“The market” is usually honest, even if it’s poorly understood. The economic signal seems to be that entrepreneurship adds more value to the economy than labor, so workers are relocating from inefficient, expensive jobs to create their own wealth. The gigonomic paradigm fits well with the age of mobility and the internet. Job-search and freelance websites make it easy to match an employer’s needs to available workers only as such needs arise. For the employer, this is more efficient than having an employee permanently on call for when his or her services may be needed. Today’s workers can find many opportunities that were not available decades ago, but they must accept less predictability as a trade-off.
The full-time jobs that are available are also changing. As recently as 1990, manufacturing was the largest industry in most US states. 5 That changed rapidly as factory jobs were automated and / or offshored to Mexico, Eastern Europe, and Asia. The US and EU are now predominantly service economies. Health care is the most in-demand service sector, due in large part to the needs of the aging GI and Silent Generations.
College plays a key role in this economy. Employees and employers are both looking to colleges to bring them together, an effort that is not coordinated with schools. With workplace commitments on the decline, employers are investing less in general training 6 and increasingly demanding college degrees instead. Some of the jobs that are easiest for the least educated people are also those that are easiest to automate or to offshore to less expensive countries. The lucrative jobs, concentrated in computer science, medicine, and finance, require higher education.
As employers demand more education and as more students attend college worldwide, 7 education loses its competitive value, an effect that some economists now recognize as degree inflation. 8 Students compete fiercely for admission to the most prestigious brand name colleges, but those universities focus on academics, not job training. At the less prestigious tier, enterprising colleges compete to keep up with the demand for marketable skills, offering a flood of new majors such as gerontology and cybersecurity. 9
Degree inflation is compounded by the rising cost of education, which is heavily borrowed. In other words, college degrees now cost more and return less. The average college graduate’s debt is worth almost a year’s salary, a difficult amount to pay off when a salary barely meets the cost of living. So many students are defaulting that some people call it a student debt crisis in need of government intervention. 1011 For-profit colleges are a big part of the problem. These schools hold out the promise of valuable vocational education in high-demand fields such as computer science and health care management. They have proliferated in this century due to online programs. However, they inflate both their prices and their job-placement numbers, 12 and their student loan default rate is twice that of the non-profit sector. 13
Recent industrialization is having a tremendous effect on Gen X and Millennials in Asia and Latin America, the receiving end of offshoring. Following three decades of extreme gentrification in Asia, 14 the global middle class is larger than ever, and now outnumbers the poor. 15 Developing countries are drawing rapidly from their rural poor to fill jobs in cities. Some demographers describe this urbanization as the largest mass migration in world history. 16 The mature industrial economies are still growing at a healthy average of 2% annually – it’s just that the newly-industrialized economies are growing at an unsustainably fast rate while catching up. 17 Fast development has its problems too. Many of the fastest-growing cities are not equipped to handle the human tidal wave. Traffic jams and accidents, pollution, and infrastructure management are straining the limits of their localities.
Wealth is measured not only by income but by the leisure time that it buys. Today’s global middle class travels internationally at an unprecedented rate. 18 There is a distinct generation gap in daily leisure time. Today’s younger generations spend 50% less time watching TV and an alarming 80% less time reading than the boomers and silent generation. As you probably guessed, that slack in leisure time is taken up by computers and video games. 19 There is now a niche industry in treating electronic addiction. 20 Video games account for a sizable fraction of millennial men’s time away from work. 21
B. Social Discourse and Milestones
A decade is a short time on a societal scale. Many characteristics of 21st-century life are not a break from the 20th, but a shift in focus or a matter of degree. This topic addresses two themes that have become central in today’s public dialogue, and then concludes with some recent milestones in centurial trends.
1. Identity Politics
It may well be impossible for people to make sense of society without mentally categorizing the world into “us and them”. People have historically used nationality or class to define their ingroups. A large, multicultural society creates numerous sub-nations and sub-classes with which a person may identify. Identity politics revolves around recognizing certain populations such as “Muslim-European” or “transgender” as distinct from society at large. Today’s identity politics has its roots in the 1960s, especially inspired by the movements for women and black Americans. The phrase “identity politics” has only become common in written literature since 1990 22 as it has become an increasingly mainstream philosophy.
Today’s flavor of identity politics is usually associated with the left, and it has come to dominate college culture and academic sociology. 23 It adopts Marxist themes of privilege and victimhood. 24 The goal of an identity-political movement is generally the end of a perceived oppression by the rest of society. This liberation may be accomplished legally, with anti-discrimination legislation, or emotionally, such as with moral persuasion or positive media representation.
The conservative criticism of identity politics is that it divides a society into competing factions rather than looking for common national solutions. That being said, conservative identity politics, in the form of “white nationalism”, is on the rise in the 2010s. A moderate critique is that both ends of the spectrum may be overestimating a small but vocal extreme on the other side.
Most identity politics is inseparable from economics. The rights at issue, like jobs, welfare, and interactions with police and courts, are all strongly related to poverty. Since poverty varies with ethnicity, 25 it is hard to disentangle “minority” issues from the consequences of low-income life.
The conservative approach is to address poverty per se with “negative” rights (freedom from discrimination) and accountability for personal decisions. 26 Liberals are more demanding of positive rights – affirmative action from the government. 27 This affirmative action is often expressly aimed at certain ethnic groups, such as with race-based college admissions. Liberals feel this is necessary for minorities to overcome systemic disadvantage. Unfortunately, this can perpetuate a sense of competition among poor people of different colors and creeds. 28
2. The Mainstreaming of Conspiracism
“Conspiracy theory” is a well-known but not entirely satisfactory term. I will define conspiracism as the belief that reality is controlled or concealed by agents in a secret realm. Such ideas have been around for millennia, but they are strongly on the rise right now. 29 There are at least two independent explanations for this trend: first a rechanneling of religiosity, and more recently the internet.
Conspiracism serves a psychological need that organized religions have historically fulfilled. What is the source of evil, suffering, and strife? In ancient times, the agents of evil were called devils and spirits. Now that witches and cloven-hooved demons are seen as fairy tales, they are being reshaped into more “plausible” forms like deep states, extraterrestrials, and secret societies. Conspiracy theories derive from preconceived notions and strong emotions, especially threat and powerlessness. 30 The evidence used to support a conspiracy theory is always circumstantial. Conspiracism is dogmatic, not open to revision with direct evidence. In fact, evidence against a conspiracy is explained away as a “coverup”, making the theory unfalsifiable. 31 In all of these regards, conspiracism is a religious mode of thought. It is an unofficial, secular modernization of spiritual beliefs. It makes sense then that the religious right is the fountainhead of conspiracism – true in Islam as well as Christianity.
Until a few decades ago, conspiracy theorists were an isolated set of individuals. The world wide web invigorated the movement by providing a community as well as endless content. The first major web-enabled conspiracy theory was the “Truther” narrative, alleging that the US government and / or Israeli special forces were the real 9/11 perpetrators. Since then, influenced by the Truthers and trailblazing conspiracy-theory website InfoWars.com, a genre of propaganda videos and websites has grown explosively. Now it is almost a given that every major news story is followed immediately by a counter narrative on blogs and forums.
Conspiracism has expanded from the margins of society to the mainstream, and now impacts policy at the highest levels. A sizeable percentage of Americans who voted for Trump and Britons who voted for Brexit believed that they were voting against a covert plot to make their countries majority-Muslim. 32 Journalists and academics who had long shunned this unscientific rhetoric are now becoming increasingly concerned about its impacts. The full-fledged study of conspiracism by historians, psychologists, and social scientists has only come into its own since the 2000s decade. 33
3. Demographic Milestones and Records
I close this chapter with several indicators that present a snapshot of the human species today. Most of these factoids are not new trends but recent milestones achieved, or records broken, in centurial trends. This confluence of trends makes our generation distinct from any other.
Here are some of the interesting milestones on the path to global industrialization, a process that is two centuries in the making.
- Around the year 2000, overweight became a more abundant problem than underweight worldwide. 34 Obesity is associated with sedentary industrialized lifestyles and has been gradually increasing for at least a century.
- The population is now aging everywhere, even in developing countries. In fact, the countries that are industrializing now are doing so more quickly than in the past and are aging swiftly. 35 Aging is caused by declining fertility as well as increasing lifespan. We are well on our way to diverting the anticipated overpopulation crisis, but aging poses its own challenges.
- The world became majority-urban around 2007. 36 To put this in perspective, 97% of the world’s population was rural just 200 years ago.
Other markers fall on trendlines dating to the sociological revolution of the 1960s.
- College students became majority female in the 1990s. This is a solid worldwide trend that has taken off quickly since the 1970s. 37
- The majority of births are now out of wedlock in 45 countries. This trend is led by Latin America, where nuclear families are being replaced mostly by single-mother households. Elsewhere, the trend represents a rise in unmarried cohabitation, not a shift in family structure. 38
Finally, here is an astonishing new record and a sign of the times.
- Photo “Generation Gap” by Joi Ito (4/11/2007), CC-BY 2.0 license, https://www.flickr.com/photos/joi/455111587 (accessed and saved 4/08/19, archived 5/31/20). ↩
- Singh, Ajt (2008): Historical Examination of the Golden Age of Full Employment in Western Europe. Published in: Missing Links in the Unemployment Relationship, Arestis, P and McCombie, J (eds) (2009): pp. 51-71. ↩
- James Manyika et al., “Independent work: Choice, necessity, and the gig economy”, McKinsey Global Institute (Oct. 2016), https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/employment-and-growth/independent-work-choice-necessity-and-the-gig-economy (accessed and saved 3/09/19). ↩
- Julie Sonier et al., “State-Level Trends in Employer-Sponsored Health Insurance”, State Health Access Data Assistance Center (Apr., 2013), https://www.rwjf.org/content/rwjf/en/library/research/2013/04/state-level-trends-in-employer-sponsored-health-insurance.html?cq_ck=1365787641906 (accessed and saved 4/07/19). ↩
- Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, The Economics Daily, Largest industries by state, 1990–2013 on the Internet at https://www.bls.gov/opub/ted/2014/ted_20140728.htm (visited March 09, 2019). ↩
- U.S. Census Bureau, “Survey of Income and Program Participation” (2008), as presented by Timothy Taylor, “A Decline in On-the-Job Training”, Conversable Economist (2/26/2015), http://conversableeconomist.blogspot.com/2015/02/a-decline-in-on-job-training.html (accessed and saved 3/10/19). ↩
- Wittgenstein Centre for Demography and Global Human Capital (2015), variable “Population size by education level” (global), http://www.oeaw.ac.at/vid/dataexplorer/ , as summarized by Max Roser and Esteban Ortiz-Ospina, “Global Rise of Education”, Our World in Data (2019), graph entitled “Projected world population by level of education”, https://ourworldindata.org/global-rise-of-education (accessed and saved 3/10/19). ↩
- Joseph B. Fuller and Manjari Raman, “Dismissed by Degrees”, published by Accenture, Grads of Life, and Harvard Business School (Oct. 2017), http://www.hbs.edu/managing-the-future-of-work/Documents/dismissed-by-degrees.pdf (accessed and saved 3/10/19). ↩
- Jon Marcus, “Panicked universities in search of students are adding thousands of new majors”, The Hechinger Report (8/09/2018), https://hechingerreport.org/panicked-universities-in-search-of-students-are-adding-thousands-of-new-majors/ (accessed and saved 4/01/19). ↩
- Joseph Chamie, “Student Debt Rising Worldwide”, Yale Global (5/18/2017), https://yaleglobal.yale.edu/content/student-debt-rising-worldwide (accessed and saved 3/10/19). ↩
- “Provide Quality and Affordable Education”, The 2016 Democratic Party Platform, Democratic National Committee (July, 2016), https://democrats.org/about/party-platform/#affordable-education (accessed 3/10/19). ↩
- Yan Cao and Tariq Habash, “College Complaints Unmasked”, The Century Foundation (11/08/2017), https://tcf.org/content/report/college-complaints-unmasked/ (accessed and saved 3/14/19). ↩
- US Dep’t of Education data as summarized by Chris Quintana, “A college closed, leaving thousands without a degree. How to keep it from happening to you”, USA Today (3/26/2019), https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/education/2019/03/26/how-to-choose-a-college-argosy-university-college-closing/3211480002/ (accessed and saved 4/01/19). ↩
- Hans and Ola Rosling, “Number of People by Income”, Don’t Panic, How to End Poverty, Gapminder (Sep. 2015). Visualization at https://www.gapminder.org/tools/#$state$time$value=1975;;&chart-type=mountain (accessed and partly saved 3/11/19), description and sources at https://www.gapminder.org/news/data-sources-dont-panic-end-poverty/ Section 8, “World Income Distribution” (accessed and saved 3/11/19). This is a tour de force of statistical gathering and analysis, and a stunning visualization that I highly recommend. It had trouble displaying on the Microsoft Edge Browser when I accessed it. ↩
- Homi Kharas and Kristofer Hamel, “A global tipping point: Half the world is now middle class or wealthier”, Brookings Institution (9/27/2018), https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/middle-class-poverty-economics-business-a8567191.html (accessed and saved 3/11/19). ↩
- BBC News, “The Second Industrial Revolution,” 5/11/04, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/3701581.stm ↩
- International Monetary Fund, “Report for Selected Country Groups and Subjects”, World Economic Outlook Database (Apr. 2017), https://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/weo/2017/01/weodata/weorept.aspx?pr.x=72&pr.y=12&sy=2006&ey=2018&scsm=1&ssd=1&sort=country&ds=.&br=1&c=001%2C110%2C163%2C200&s=NGDP_RPCH&grp=1&a=1 (accessed and saved 3/11/19). ↩
- ICEF Monitor, “Global tourism report highlights key travel trends” (8/01/2018), http://monitor.icef.com/2018/08/global-tourism-report-highlights-key-travel-trends/ (accessed and saved 3/11/19). ↩
- US Bureau of Labor Statistics, “American Time Use Survey Summary” (6/28/2018), https://www.bls.gov/news.release/atus.nr0.htm (accessed and saved 3/11/19). ↩
- See pioneering site www.NetAddiction.com ↩
- Mark Aguiar et al., “Leisure Luxuries and the Labor Supply of Young Men”, NBER Working Paper No. 23552 (June, 2017), https://www.nber.org/papers/w23552 (accessed and saved 3/03/19). ↩
- Google NGram Viewer, https://books.google.com/ngrams search for “Identity Politics” (1960 – 2008). Queried 3/16/19, graph saved. ↩
- Bruce Bawer, The Victims’ Revolution, Harper Collins (2012), Amazon Kindle edition, location 53. ↩
- Frank Furedi, “The hidden history of identity politics”, Spiked (12/01/2017), https://www.spiked-online.com/2017/12/01/the-hidden-history-of-identity-politics/20596/#.WiUcjkbyhhE (accessed and saved 3/12/19). ↩
- In the US, for example, see Suzanne Macartney, Alemayehu Bishaw, and Kayla Fontenot, “Poverty Rates for Selected Detailed Race and Hispanic Groups by State and Place: 2007-2011”, US Census Bureau (Feb. 2013), https://www2.census.gov/library/publications/2013/acs/acsbr11-17.pdf (accessed and saved 3/31/19). ↩
- See e.g. Douglas Holtz-Eakin, “Reducing Poverty the Republican Way”, Pathways (Winter, 2016), pp. 15 – 17, https://inequality.stanford.edu/sites/default/files/Pathways_Presidential_Republican-Way.pdf or David French, “The Myth of the Virtuous Poor”, National Review (2/06/2017), https://www.nationalreview.com/magazine/2017/02/06/poverty-morality-conservatives/ (both accessed and saved 4/06/19). Neither article mentions anything about race or ethnicity. ↩
- Robert O. Self, All in the Family, Hill and Wang (Kindle edition, 2012). A central thesis of Self’s book is the tension between positive and negative rights as arising from changing home economics in the 1960s, a major factor in the left / right divide of today. ↩
- See e.g. Rasmussen Reports, “51% See Democrats as Party of ‘Identity Politics and Victimology’” (6/25/2018), http://www.rasmussenreports.com/public_content/politics/general_politics/june_2018/51_see_democrats_as_party_of_identity_politics_and_victimology (accessed and saved 3/31/19). ↩
- Joseph E. Uscinski, “Down the Rabbit Hole We Go!”, Conspiracy Theories & the People Who Believe Them, Joseph E. Uscinski, ed., Oxford University Press (Amazon Kindle edition, 2019) locations 393 – 398. ↩
- Hugo Drochon, “Britons are swallowing conspiracy theories. Here’s how to stop the rot”, Guardian (11/28/2018), https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/nov/28/britons-swallowing-conspiracy-theories-stop-rot-research-fake-news (accessed and saved 3/24/19). ↩
- Michael Barkun, A Culture of Conspiracy, University of California Press (Los Angeles, 2003), p. 7. ↩
- YouGov-Cambridge Center / GB survey (August, 2018). Raw results at https://d25d2506sfb94s.cloudfront.net/cumulus_uploads/document/5j57dtwlc0/YGC%20Conspiracy%20Theories%20(GB).pdf . Textual and graphical summary in Esther Addley, “Study shows 60% of Britons believe in conspiracy theories”, Guardian (11/22/2018), https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/nov/23/study-shows-60-of-britons-believe-in-conspiracy-theories (accessed and saved 3/24/19). ↩
- Uscinski, op. cit. locations 429 – 435. ↩
- G. Gardner and B. Halweil, Underfed and Overfed: the global epidemic of malnutrition (Worldwatch paper no. 150), Worldwatch Institute (Washington, DC, 2000), as quoted by Benjamin Caballero, “The Global Epidemic of Obesity: An Overview”, Epidemiologic Reviews vol. 29 (6/13/2007), 1-5 at 1. https://academic.oup.com/epirev/article/29/1/1/444345 (accessed and saved 6/21/13). ↩
- Ertugrul Apakan and Omur Budak, “Population Aging and Development: Opportunities for Economic Growth”, statement delivered to Council on Foreign Relations (9/27/2012), https://www.cfr.org/content/publications/attachments/Apakan-Intro-and-Comments.pdf (accessed and saved 3/25/19). ↩
- Data from World Bank. Excellent summary and graphics by Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser, “Urbanization”, Our World in Data (Sep. 2018), https://ourworldindata.org/urbanization (accessed and saved 3/25/19). ↩
- Isabelle Bilton, “Women are outnumbering men at a record high in universities worldwide”, SI News (3/07/2018), https://www.studyinternational.com/news/record-high-numbers-women-outnumbering-men-university-globally/ (accessed and saved 3/25/19). ↩
- Joseph Chamie, “Out-of-Wedlock Births Rise Worldwide”, YaleGlobal Online (3/16/2017), https://yaleglobal.yale.edu/content/out-wedlock-births-rise-worldwide (accessed and saved 3/25/19). ↩
- Facebook, 1st quarter 2020 report, https://investor.fb.com/investor-news/press-release-details/2020/Facebook-Reports-First-Quarter-2020-Results/default.aspx (accessed, saved, and archived 5/31/20). The report counts 2.6 billion monthly active users on Facebook alone. This figure exceeds 3 billion when including other Facebook products such as Instagram. ↩
- Christianity was also projected to have 2.6 billion practitioners in 2020. See Todd M. Johnson et al., Status of Global Christianity, 2019, in the Context of 1900 – 2050, Center for the Study of Global Christianity (Jan., 2019), https://www.gordonconwell.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/13/2019/04/StatusofGlobalChristianity20191.pdf (accessed, saved, and archived 5/31/20). Facebook is growing 100 times more rapidly, having achieved this size in just two decades as compared to two millennia. ↩
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