The bit in between adolescence and retirement is your working life, and it’s been getting shorter and shorter. Which is unfortunate, as it has to pay for everything else. This structural deformity in the life cycle of Western man is at the root of most of our problems. Staying ever longer in “school” (I use the term loosely) leads to ever later workplace entry, and ever later (if at all) family formation. Which means that our generation is running up debt that will have to be repaid by our shrunken progeny. One hundred Greek grandparents have 42 Greek grandchildren. Is it likely that 42 Greeks can repay the debts run up by 100 Greeks? No wonder they’d rather stick it to the Germans. But the thriftier Germans have the same deathbed demographics. If 100 Germans resent having to pick up the check for an entire continent, is it likely 42 Germans will be able to do it?
Look around you. The late-20th-century Western lifestyle isn’t going to be around much longer. In a few years’ time, our children will look at old TV commercials showing retirees dancing, golfing, cruising away their sixties and seventies, and wonder what alternative universe that came from. In turn, their children will be amazed to discover that in the early 21st century the Western world thought it entirely normal that vast swathes of the citizenry should while away their youth enjoying what, a mere hundred years earlier, would have been the leisurely varsity of the younger son of a Mitteleuropean Grand Duke.
I was sad to learn that Helga Vlahović died a few weeks ago, but her central metaphor all those years ago wasn’t wrong. Any functioning society is like an orchestra. When the parts don’t fit together, it’s always the other fellow who’s out of tune. So the Greeks will blame the Germans, and vice versa. But the developed world is all playing the same recessional. In the world after Western prosperity, we will work till we’re older and we will start younger — and we will despise those who thought they could defy not just the rules of economic gravity but the basic human life cycle.