Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Old v. Young

Philip Pilkington’s provocative essay, “Generation Against Generation”(December), portrays capitalist countries ripped apart by tensions generated by low fertility and an aging population. He contributes some interesting insights, some highly debatable conclusions, and a number of observations whose empirical foundations are hard to discern.

Rapidly aging countries struggle with the consequences of productivity decline and generational imbalances in assets. But they also exhibit more flexibility than ­Pilkington recognizes, which softens the blows. Japan is famous for its evaporating fertility and gradual evolution toward one of the oldest societies ever known. Yet, as the special section of the Economist (Dec. 11, 2021) points out, it has also adapted by redefining social roles: “Half of 65-69 year olds and a third of 70- to 74 year olds have jobs. Japan’s gerontological society has called for reclassifying those aged 65-74 as ‘pre old.’” A similar trend has emerged in the United States, spurred partly by the collapse or erosion of pension, but also by longevity.

Pilkington pinpoints one feature of the demographic decline that is truly worrying: asset distribution by generation. In capitalist countries where property ownership is a major feature of private accumulation and the centerpiece of the personally secured safety net, the delay forced on young people by lower wages, higher costs of education and training, and increasing prices will have a major impact on their economic security. The fortunate ones among them will find their parents financing property acquisition; the not-so-fortunate will be relegated to the rental market and unable to generate equity for the long run. We should look to Scandinavia for one solution: an expanded rental sector with controlled prices and a more generous pension and healthcare system, obviating the need for the kind of private wealth that is necessary in the U.K. or the U.S.

As Pilkington notes, the current impasse is prompting a return to the multi-generational households familiar in agrarian societies. In some countries this is greeted as a disaster prompted by moral collapse (Japan). In others, it is seen as business as usual (Italy), because young adults (and not so young) have always lived with their parents until they marry; they just don’t marry much. In the Nordic countries, social policy ensures that these accordion families don’t emerge outside of the farming world. The U.S. and the U.K. are in between. I argue that this is not the social catastrophe that Pilkington claims: It is a legitimate function of families to support the generations coming up, as it is the reciprocal obligation to care for the elderly.

Finally, I know of no empirical support at all for the notion that the spread of internet-accessible pornography accounts for patterns of family formation. Similarly, the idea that welfare discourages fertility is nearly the opposite of the social science evidence (and really flies in the face of what most conservatives would argue).

Katherine Newman
university of massachusetts
boston, massachusetts

I don’t dispute with Philip Pilkington that we are entering the “long run” of which John Maynard Keynes, the intellectual architect of post-war capitalism, spoke. He is long dead, and we are left clinging to life and holding the bag.

However, Pilkington is ­only half-right to argue that today’s outrageous property prices are the result of actions by old people. ­Specifically, he says that “policymakers think of the problem as one of supply and demand. . . . This ignores the speculative pressures operating throughout the market. Price increases have been driven not by too many people chasing too few houses, but rather by too many older people with large amounts of savings chasing too few investment assets with decent returns.” This is an astonishing assertion to make without so much as a footnote referring us to some evidence.

There are several reasons to disbelieve it, mainly the numerous counterexamples. In Japan, much further along in the demographic collapse Pilkington describes, rents in Tokyo have barely changed over the last twenty years, according to the Financial Times, despite ­increases in population comparable to ­London or San Francisco. In a single year, Tokyo permitted more new housing than the state of California. San Francisco added four times as many jobs as homes in the last decade, according to the Manhattan Institute, which ought to be all the proof one needs that the problem is about supply, not speculation.

It is worth noting that institutional investors in the U.S. and U.K., such as Black Rock and luxury apartment developer Avalon Bay, say that real estate is an attractive investment because local governments are so effective at preventing new housing from being built. It is not speculation driving the housing crisis; the housing crisis is driving speculation. Old people are indeed responsible because of the actions they took to restrict housing growth in the 1970s and 1980s, but not because they have amassed property empires with their retirement savings. U.S. homeowners gained $3 trillion in equity last year because soaring demand was not met by supply, gains largely concentrated among the older, wealthier residents of coastal states. Conversely, homeowners in some Rust Belt cities, where populations are older and in decline, can’t get loans to fix up their homes because doing so won’t increase the value enough to justify the investment.

Matthew M. Robare
boston, massachusetts

Philip Pilkington replies:

Katherine Newman’s letter appears to me like an exercise in wish fulfillment. But it raises themes common among a certain generation of social scientists. This generation—whether ideologically conservative or coming from the left-communitarian tradition—seems to think that every manifestly toxic social development tends, almost teleologically, toward a return of communal living. The arc of history bends inevitably toward communitarian outcomes, we are told.

Yet the logic is so obviously flawed. We are told that multi-­family living will make a return, and children will live with their parents. This in response to the collapse of nuclear families and the rise of atomized, childless citizens. Obviously, if the nuclear family has collapsed, many will not have families to live with. And if large percentages of the population are not having children, they will not have families to depend on.

If Newman’s argument allows me to make one point, let it be this: Please stop assuming that manifestly bad trends will tend toward good outcomes as if it is ordained by the Grace of God. The baby boomers can afford this myopic optimism. My generation cannot. And we know it. As should anyone else walking by a homeless encampment recalling the heady days of the now-hilarious “care in the community” literature of the 1970s.

Newman states that there is no evidence that pornography and dating apps will lead to lower fertility. I do not know who she is arguing with. I wrote that “the effect of these dynamics on fertility rates is not yet clear, but it seems likely to be profound.” There is no evidence yet because the jury is still adjourning. I expect such evidence to emerge. In the meantime, consider that the IFS recently found that the share of people under thirty-five who have not had sex in the last year has risen from around 10 percent in 2011 to around 20 percent in 2021. ­OKCupid came online in 2008; ­Tinder mainstreamed online dating in 2012. ­Pornhub and mass online ­pornography streaming started in 2007. Beyond this, when older people tell younger people that these technologies have no impact, young ­p­­­eople—who have seen these impacts in their friends and ­family, as they are incredibly clear and ­obvious—tend to look at the older person as being completely out of touch.

Regarding the assertion that welfare systems increase fertility, ­Newman should tell Europe. They will be pleased to hear it. But I doubt this knowledge will increase their fertility rates, which remain well below America’s—with its much scanter welfare system. Japan has a nice welfare system too—interestingly.

With respect to Japan, Matthew Robare fails to mention one remarkable fact about the country: Incomes have been stagnant for decades. Rents may move slowly, but income grows more slowly still. Why are the young Japanese unable to claw any income gains? Because the older Japanese that run the companies pay them based on a bonus system, which introduces a deflationary bias to wage growth. This explains why Japan has been in a stagnant trap for decades; it is also why the country avoids the ­normally ­inflationary ­consequences of an aging population.

This does generate an interesting tangential question: Can we avoid the inflationary consequences of the aging population by effectively freezing real wages as Japan has done? Firstly, such a strategy would generate the same stagnation here as we see there. Secondly, probably not. The average American or European youth seems to me much stroppier than his Japanese counterpart. Forcing an overt pay cut on him seems unlikely to succeed. It probably will not work too much longer for the Japanese either.

Psychology of Oppression

In his review of Tao Lin’s Leave Society and Ross Douthat’s The Deep Places (“It’s Not All In Your Head,” December), Sam Kriss makes a qualified case for recovering Freud’s theory of hysteria—which traces unexplained somatic ailments to repressed desires—in a world teeming with enigmatic, idiopathic illness.

As Kriss notes, Freud sometimes went too far: He was blind to the true source of his famous patient Emma Eckstein’s agony, which had been exacerbated by his friend Wilhelm Fliess’s botched surgery. Freud’s views have come under fire from feminists who see him as ­unwilling to recognize women’s pain, from recovered memory advocates who consider him complicit in covering up child abuse, and from psychiatrists who seek to treat psychic ailments pharmaceutically rather than hermeneutically. But, Kriss argues, his “concept of hysteria allows . . . a much more sympathetic read” on unexplained symptoms than is often believed. This is because it acknowledges that “the suffering is real,” even if its physical cause is not recognized. 

For Kriss, the common source of much unaccounted-for pain is the “ambient unwellness” of our era. Today, “[e]verything invites you to optimize yourself,” he writes, but “[t]he chronically ill person is . . . the hidden shadow of this cyborg utopia.” He wonders why Douthat, despite his Catholic faith, is determined to trace his condition to the Lyme spirochete and denies that the spiritual malaise of contemporary life may have equal or more powerful effects on the body.

If the religious, conservative Douthat is unexpectedly secular in his search for natural causes, Kriss identifies an oddly religious sensibility among his fellow left-wing millennials. He uses the strange case of the young socialist politician Julia Salazar, who falsely claimed to be a Jewish, working-class immigrant, to illustrate another way hysteria now manifests itself: ­Symbolic overidentification with the oppressed takes the place of somatic expression of psychic pain.

Instead of displacing a psychic deadlock onto an organ or limb, as Freud argued that affluent Viennese women were doing a century ago, millennial progressives may instead project unresolved traumas onto a recognized locus of suffering: an oppressed group. In this sense, affluent and educated leftists’ fixation on the tribulations of the marginalized functions as a sort of psychic stigmata. Rather than dismissing this response as mere falsehood or delusion, Kriss seems to suggest, we should seek to make sense of the “ambient unwellness” that ­produces it.

Geoff Shullenberger
new york, new york 

Sam Kriss replies:

Geoff Shullenberger adds an interesting note to my essay on hysteria. I completely agree that from the perspective of the yearning hysteric, there isn’t much difference between physical pain and social oppression. As the feminist critics of the twentieth century saw, one can very easily be a disguise for the other. One slightly pedantic point, though: In Freud’s mature work, hysteria is not the result of an “unresolved trauma.” He came to believe that such traumatic memories were often themselves a kind of hysterical symptom. Obviously, this threatens to pitch us into a kind of abyss, in which some people are broken for no particular reason; it’s why I think Freud always needs to be supplemented with a good dose of social critique. Similarly, as ­Shullenberger suggests, we run the risk of ascribing all identification or solidarity with the oppressed to a kind of hysterical deadlock. As it happens, I don’t think this is the case; most millennial progressives are ­sincerely trying to do their best by those around them, even if there are a few prominent counter-­examples. I’d suggest that things actually work the other way: Instead of displacing their own private, internal suffering onto “the tribulations of the marginalized,” truly hysterical types usually end up turning long histories of injustice into something that’s ultimately only about themselves.

Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before July 1.

First Things is a proudly reader-supported enterprise. The gifts of readers like you— often of $50, $100, or $250—make articles like the one you just read possible.

This Spring Campaign—one of our two annual reader giving drives—comes at a pivotal season for America and the church. With your support, many more people will turn to First Things for thoughtful religious perspectives on pressing issues of politics, culture, and public life.

All thanks to you. Will you answer the call?

Make My Gift