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Friday, October 03, 2003

Auld Lang Syne

Richard Thomkins gets ready to say farewell to the Italians. My feeling is he is a little premature, but he has certainly got the message. This little meme is begining to go the rounds. His use of the Maslow pyramid isn't quite the way I would look at things, but he has a point. We are looking for more in life than primary need fulfilment, and not all our decisions are economic ones. Bottom line: he doesn't offer a solution, and neither do I.

Arrivederci baby

I am going to miss the Italians. Not that I have known many personally, but when you think what they have given the world - the Roman Empire, the Renaissance, pizza - it is a shame to think they are doomed by their low birth rate to extinction. Even allowing for immigration, the United Nations estimates the country's population will fall 22 per cent between now and 2050. You do not have to be a demographer to recognise that this is a nation spiralling into oblivion.

The Italians are not alone. All across Europe, women have stopped having enough babies to make up for the people who die. Russia's population is forecast to decline 30 per cent by 2050 and Estonia's by a catastrophic 52 per cent. Germany's is forecast to fall by a relatively modest 4 per cent, but only because the country is experiencing massive immigration. There will be plenty of German passport holders in 2050, but they will not be eating bratwurst, drinking beer and telling bad jokes.

As birth rates decline, the immediate problem for Europeans is the rising dependency burden: there are not enough young people to support the old. The looming pensions crisis has prompted calls for quick fixes such as increasing or abolishing the retirement age and encouraging higher levels of immigration. But in the longer term, what, if anything, can or should be done to stop entire peoples and cultures disappearing from the planet?

And why on earth should women produce babies any more? In advanced societies, most people have long since passed the point where life was just a struggle for subsistence. Soaring living standards have left them in a position where their material needs have been more than satisfied. Now their sights and expectations are set on something much higher than the mere fulfilment of some primeval urge to survive and reproduce. They want achievement, recognition, happiness, and to be all they can be.

Yes: for those familiar with the work of behavioural psychologist Abraham Maslow, we are back on the slopes of Maslow's pyramid, more formally known as his hierarchy of needs. According to Maslow, the highest level of human motivation is self- actualisation or self-fulfilment. But before it can be achieved, the lower levels of need have to be satisfied: the need for basic comforts such as food, warmth and shelter, the need for safety and security, the need for love and belonging and the need for respect and self-esteem.

In less developed societies, children satisfy security needs (level two of Maslow's pyramid) and are clearly essential. But it is less obvious where, if at all, they belong on the pyramid for those of us in the developed world. One hopes they will provide their parents with love, self-esteem and a sense of fulfilment, but they are certainly not the only possible sources of such feelings. Love, for example, can come from one's partner or friends, self-esteem from one's occupation and self-fulfilment from the freedom to pursue one's dreams.

In short, parenthood is a lifestyle choice rather than a necessity, and possibly not a particularly rational one. The higher levels of Maslow's pyramid, after all, are achieved not by indulging in the staggering levels of self-sacrifice that motherhood involves, but by satisfying one's inner needs for esteem, fulfilment and freedom. This is an agenda for selfish individualism, not for devoting the best years of your life to the raising and nurturing of others.
Source: Financial Times

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