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The threat to empire

In 1917, British forces hoisted the Union Jack over Baghdad. In the words of one chronicler, hoisting that flag was an act that marked ‘the thirtieth seizure in history of this Caliphs’ capital with minarets in the skies and feet in the mud’. Today, the difficulties of Iraq dominate current affairs. Talk of ‘the American Empire’ is commonplace enough; talk of the Iraq affair signalling its impending failure is starting to appear more often. For some, Iraq is the touchstone for general American decline. Whether it is or isn’t, the suggestion poses bigger questions still: is America really an empire? If it is, is it in decline? And if Iraq won’t, what would bring down such an empire?

Amidst the theories, historians often posit the rise of competing powers, or the over-stretching of imperial aspirations as triggers for decline. But today, one true seed of decay exists and it is taking firmer root by the year. It is a new threat to a new type of empire. It is nothing less than the ageing of the developed world.

Beyond the threat of a terrorist holocaust, the less visceral but more likely prospect seems to be the slow decline occasioned by an ageing population that can no longer fuel its own future productivity or pre-eminence. Over time we may find that, with the application of sufficient vigilance and resources, terrorism might be managed within ‘tolerable’ levels—a new cold war that can be waged beneath the daily consciousness of the majority. But the many implications of an ever-ageing population are especially troubling, because no simple answers are apparent and the effects are felt everywhere. The citadel’s old and neglected walls may crumble under their own weight, rather than being smashed spectacularly from without. But the result remains the same—the citadel falls.
The whole of the developed world lives in an empire of sorts. It is not one of occupation or colonisation in the traditional sense, but, measured by any historical standard, given the relative health, wealth, comfort and ease within which so many of us live, it may as well be. This empire is a societal grouping, amalgamated by the elevated positions of many in the developed world on the ladder of global prosperity; by their participation in familiar markets of trade and by their allegiance to similar socio-political systems. For the most part, the citizens of this empire are afforded unprecedented freedoms, opportunities and conditions of life. Yet—seemingly as a consequence—they aren’t breeding.

In its simplest terms, assuming that migration levels do not fluctuate much to shift the equilibrium, a simple ratio of two children born per woman keeps the age profile of any population relatively constant. In Australia today, the total fertility rate lies at around 1.7. In 1955—the age of the ‘baby boom’—the equivalent Australian mark was 3.4. It would appear that the current rate will either rise or sink only marginally over the coming 50 years. In any case, it is unlikely to rebound violently to levels well above two. In other parts of the developed world, the situation is even more desperate. Rates in the United Kingdom are around 1.6; in Portugal 1.5; in Japan 1.3. In fact, of the OECD countries, only Mexico (around 2.5), the United States (around 2.1) and Turkey (around 2.4) have maintained fertility rates above the basic replacement level

over the past five years.

The United States is certainly buoyed in this respect by the influx of Mexican labour. As a result, the gap between the rich and the poor in the US is perhaps more pronounced than in many other developed countries. But this is not a question of quality of life alone. Other developed countries may have more generous welfare systems than the US. But those other countries face a decline through ageing. In the long term, which is worse: a country where the gap between rich and poor may approach medieval proportions, or one in which the gap is narrower, but wherein a decrepit society ceases to function? Who pays for social welfare benevolence when most of the population has retired? It is a compelling question.

And just what is an ‘ideal’ fertility rate? Somalia and Niger now both ‘enjoy’ a fertility rate approaching seven. Tragically, such rates, at the other end of the scale from those of our developed empire, say much about the position of these countries on the lowest rung of society: life for the great majority in this world is a hand-to-mouth existence at best; its people are stalked by diseases long banished from the developed world. Only around 17 per cent of Niger’s population can read and write. In Australia the figure is closer to 100 per cent. The average life expectancy of a Somali male is 46 years. In Australia it is around 76. Fertility rates matter; they say much about the standard of life that can be expected in that society.

Increasing migration can act as a partial inhibitor for the ageing trend, but perhaps even this remedy is a mirage. Modern economies continue to move away from the low-level manufacturing and agricultural work that can be done at less cost in developing nations. Service industries and high technology are ever-more significant drivers of developed economies. And in these latter fields, low-skilled labour may not find a ready home. Equally, skilled migration, which is seemingly a poultice, is chimerical: in comparison to refugees and other low-skilled migrant numbers, skilled migrants—those with professional, technical or managerial expertise—represent quite a small proportion of total migration levels. Competition to attract such labour is intense. Besides, the majority of skilled labour is generated from within the ageing empire itself. At a national level, attracting more young talent is a worthy endeavour, but at a global level, skilled migrants are like migratory birds: their concentrations might shift, but their overall numbers do not change. And they will age with the rest.

An ageing population is the offspring of the high standard of living and the frenetic pace of life that we have created for ourselves. Of necessity, dual income families are much more prevalent than 30 years ago. As the cost of living increases, people work longer hours and sacrifice more to maintain their quality of life—their house, their car, their holidays, their access to acceptable standards of health and education, their choice of leisure activities. As fertility drops, the age profile increases. As more people retire, the tax burden shifts to a pool of younger workers that, in relative terms, is shrinking. As numbers of retirees increase, the health system groans under the strain. As we develop new medical procedures, new panacea to prolong life and its quality, the range and cost of health care increases still further. National health industry costs are today growing at annual rates that far outstrip the general growth in community prices and wages. The bill is settled by a dwindling base of ‘working age’ people. Caught in such a trend, living a life that matches the pace and the cost of change becomes a gamble on martingale terms—the stakes are doubled after every loss. Not managing one’s wealth and career (such as they may be) in one’s younger years could be ruinous—the greater the degree of wealth and comfort, the further and harder the fall to relative poverty for those who slip up.
Across this empire, the response of many is hardly surprising: children become a luxury, as people just try to stay in the game. Children certainly are an expensive choice. In a recent UK report that surely matches the best that Huxley or Zamyatin could produce, it was suggested that the cost of raising a child to the age of 21 approaches $360,000. Were you to ignore any other evidence of the difficulty of bringing new life into the world, here is the clincher—the actuaries are costing it for you.

This is the fabric of the empire that today’s youth inherits. But outside the borders of internet cafes, other struggles take place. Those on the bottom rungs of this world enact a brief cycle of birth, growth and decay, as disease, war, corruption and famine take their toll: in Nigeria today, around 270,000 children live with HIV/AIDS. In Rwanda, you have a better than even chance of dying before you are 40. In such countries, the escape velocity required to ascend to a better life is as incalculable as it appears impossible.

Still other countries lie wedged between this ‘drowning’ world and the empire we live in; they form the ‘developing’ world. This world is working hard to take its place at what it perceives to be the table of relative affluence and ease—to become citizens of empire. In time, such countries may also find their populations ageing, as they too discover that the price of imperial citizenship prohibits breeding. Viewed from some celestial vantage point, the world must then appear a strange farce: the poorest and weakest nations stuck in their slough, the developing countries emerging from it to higher ground; the occupants of the highest ground busily building elaborate ladders.

Governments across this empire are beginning to recognise the ageing problem. The tectonic shift in wealth and tax burden—from youth to old age for the former, the reverse for the latter, is starting to be addressed. Future governments will no doubt do more still. But will it be enough?

At some point, a question almost antithetical to all of the developed world’s wealth creation principles may have to be considered: should we knowingly curtail our standard of living to preserve the future of this empire? One (the only?) alternative to having more children may be to increase intakes of lower-skilled migrants—a mixture of those from the two worlds outside the empire: the ‘drowning’ and the ‘developing’. In the short to medium term, such people may not add much at all to the bottom line of a highly-skilled economy. Indeed, their presence may drag it down, for a time, away from the relative wealth and health levels to which we understandably aspire. Yet in the longer term, the children these new citizens give birth to may arrest the ageing process. They may themselves prosper, adding to a bottom line, two or three generations hence. A broader, healthier link between these other worlds and the developed empire might well mean the empire’s salvation. Yet it would seem to involve slowing down our progress and relative prosperity, for a time, to place ourselves in better shape for renewed efforts later on.

Would governments, business or even individuals in any great number choose consciously to slow down our progress in this way, in the name of the hazy concept of ‘longer-term prosperity’? Self-interest is easily recognised in the short-term. Is it so easy to discern over the countless years of the future? The question is not a new one. We might be best to leave one of greater eloquence to muse upon it:

A being of the nature of man, endowed with the same faculties, but with a longer measure of existence, would cast down a smile of pity and contempt on the crimes and follies of human ambition, so eager, in a narrow span, to grasp at a precarious and short-lived enjoyment. It is thus that the experience of history exalts and enlarges the horizon of our intellectual view. In a composition of some days, in a perusal of some hours, six hundred years have rolled away, and the duration of a life or reign is contracted to a fleeting moment: The grave is ever beside the throne; the success of a criminal is almost instantly followed by the loss of his prize; and our immortal reason survives and disdains the sixty phantoms of kings who have passed before our eyes, and faintly dwell in our remembrance.

Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

Luke Fraser is a director in the federal public service. He lives and works in Canberra.



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