Thursday, December 30, 2010

When You Show Up, So Does Everybody

How old were you when your life was first rocked by a public death? If you were rocked on 3/02/59, the "Day the Music Died," when Buddy Holly and two other guys died you were at best 12 if you were born in the Baby Boom. (If you need numbers here's mighty Wikipedia on the "Baby Boom," a period when people were having more babies that lasted from 1946 or 1947 until 1961. Or 1964. Or 1966. Hey, I bet sending some demographers into Thunderdome would be even more fun than economists!)


Not a boomer in the room. If you're a late boomer, like me (24 July 1964, so no need to shop for presents yet!), these might even be your parents. My mom, for sure, if she didn't prefer "cowboy" music back in the day, that is.

So here's the thing. When we talk about the Baby Boom and the 50s, we do so in .. oh, heck. They've got a TV show now that says it better than I ever can. Comfort, prosperity, and shorter work weeks. Sort of compensation for all that racism and misogyny, stuff with anyways a flipside aura of prelapsarian innocence. (Well, yes, it was all unjust and unfair, but it was happening to history dudes, not real people!)

The good stuff happened to pre-Baby Boomers! What happened to actual Boomers, at least late Boomers, was "whenever you show up for a job, so does the rest of the world."

In demography, apparently, effect can precede cause. Well, no, not really. Because we have the Baby Boom as a cultural artefact, and we have it as a demographic one, and they don't have to be the same thing. Consider the Fall of the Roman Empire. We have basically two accounts of the fall of the Roman Empire. Either things were going okay when, out of the blue, Emperor Valens got whacked at the Battle of Adrianople and the Goths overran the (western) Empire in 378AD. This sounds likely, because after all the eastern Empire went on just fine until it got its own whacking, by the Arabs in the 630s. That's 200 years, oopsie free. 

On the other, you have a story about how it was all going to hell in a handbasket long before the Battle. That sounds convincing because of, you know, stuffed cow's udders and horses being appointed consul. But, again, there's a history thing: all of that happened in the noughts, AD, three centuries before Adrianople. The decadent people lived and died, had decadent children who fought over the last pickled dormice, and their children had children, and so on.... History. Takes as long to bloody well get to the point as a Tarantino film. (Or is it just me that thinks the damn things take forever?)

This isn't actually an original insight with me. I'm too late by two hundred years. Eighteenth Century guys, they were smart. (So smart that we've forgotten what they had to say, their books were so long and hard to read. Familiar?) They said that it must have happened in the 300s.

What happened? Christianity happened! That's what they said, anyway. No, not the stuff with the Jesus and the crucifixion and the taking away of the sins of the world and that; Popes and bishops and monks. (Also, homosexuality all up in the abbey, but if you're an Eighteenth Century "Enlightenment philosophe," you sort of nudge nudge wink wink that one.) Everyone became monks (well, the girls became nuns --sexy!), and they stopped having babies. So by 378, there were no soldiers, no taxpayers, and so Emperor Valens had no army. We've forgotten that theory out here in the Anglosphere due to one Reverend Malthus coming along and offering a slightly different picture of how  history works, but it's huge in France!

Well, here's the thing. Archaeologists seem pretty clear that there were a lot less people around in the 400s than in the 300s. Maybe they were all living in camps and breaking fewer pots, so that the archaeologists can't find, and I think for various reasons that there's something to that, but, still, point. So what happened to everybody? Maybe the Goths killed them all --but people run away a lot when you try to kill them with hand tools. You really want to lock them up, tie them down, and otherwise arrange things for more efficiency and better box office. And that's work. Maybe it was indirect --the Goths ate or devastated all the crops. But, again, if you've ever hung around a dumpster, you know that people eat interesting things when they're hungry. Or meth-heads.

So maybe it is a supply issue. Fewer were being born. The thing is, the only way for that to affect events in the 400s, as opposed to outcomes, is if they weren't being born back in the 300s. Again, I'm just following in the tracks of old, old thinkers. The most I can do here is offer another explanation in place of the one that's all tangled up in Eighteenth century Catholic sphere politics. That is, I don't think that the idea about people all becoming monks is going to work, but this is a pretty persuasive premise on its face. Something that the Roman Empire did wasn't working to put people in the family way. Perhaps it wasn't working at all --making people not have babies is a pretty fundamental failure of state policy, and I don't just say that as someone who would really like to have had a cushy job teaching at a university, and could have had one if people had gone on making babies at a Baby Boom rate for a few more years in the 60s and 70s. This mean that we're back to the "Adrianople was the consequence of a longrun process" story. We just need to find the Roman Empire's wrong turning.

So when do we look? In the real world, effects follow causes. If grownup taxpayers are in short supply in 378, it could be because they weren't born, putting the problem back into the 350s. But then we'd have a crush of childless people in their 40s. Arguably, they'd be more productive, and make up for the lack of 20-somethings. It seems more likely that the problem lies in the absent kids' grandparents' day.

So if the Roman Empire fell due to being in the grip of a labour shortage in 378, the problem is likely to be found in a crash in the birth rate 40 years before. It's an old theory, just wanting a new explanation. And it suggests an analogy.....

Oh, hey. Look at the time. Gotta go to work! I have some pretty grim shifts, because at 46 and with 12 years seniority, I'm still one of the most junior people at my workplace. Funny, that.

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