What happens when a society reaches its peak? When the age of discovery—not just of far-off lands but of life-changing inventions—ends? This is the subject of Ross Douthat’s recent book The Decadent Society.
“Where are you, Thomas Edison?” the author implores, sadly noting the drop in meaningful patents in the last couple of decades and the failure to produce life-altering changes like the electric refrigerator, the vacuum cleaner, the horseless carriage, the jet plane, the atomic bomb, and even the moon shot. But the last on this list, the moon landing, took place in 1969. What do we have to show for ourselves since then?
No inventions, you ask? What about the computer, and its shrunken version: the phone that does just about everything? Yes, it’s certainly made shopping easier and helped us stay in touch with persons on the other side of the world. But beyond this, how has it changed the world? Well then, what about the mapping of the genome, following the discovery of DNA’s structure way back in 1953? Fine, but what’s the takeaway from this? Can we claim to have won major battles against cancer and the other deadly diseases?
Life is constantly changing, you might reply. Just give us time and we’ll eventually see new wonders. But the author suggests an interesting exercise to ground us in our assessment of change. Have another look at “Back to the Future,” the 1985 futuristic movie hit featuring the kid and the goofy professor, and take note of what has changed in the 35 years since the movie was released. No iPhones, you’d immediately notice, but otherwise life is recognizably the same. Certainly we have no flying cars today, as predicted in the movie. Or how much of the fantasy depicted in Star Trek has become a real part of modern life today 50 years later? “Little, if none” is the answer.
Now try to go back 35 years from 1985, bringing you to 1950. Take a good look around, survey the landscape. Notice the car styles, the kitchen appliances, the clothing (and hats) people were wearing, even the surface of what passed as roads in those pre-interstate highways age. All in all, it’s something of a different world—much more so than between 1985 and the present.
But decadence is more than the slow-down in inventions. It means “economic stagnation, institutional decay, cultural and intellectual exhaustion.” According to the author, it is a state of somnolence throughout society—“same old, same old,” an unending repetitiveness. Our thinking in recent years may have shifted inward, we may argue, but we can’t claim that it has led to a deepening of the sense of mystery within. Just look at the recent numbers on religious affiliation, or the indifference toward magic and astrology (other than as rehashed topics of movies).
As the book goes on to explain, even more features are to be found in this decadence: lack of adventurousness, economic stagnation, frozen incomes, shortage of new ideas, individualism, and aging of the population.
Douthat traces a pattern that nations seem to follow as their birthrate begins to decline. The problem is not unique to the US. He finds much of the world settled into the same stagnation—certainly Europe, East Asia and Australia, as starters.
He goes on to explore just what this birthrate decline can mean—to the person who grows up as the only child, without siblings to quarrel with and learn from, without a rich supply of cousins to visit, without a strong family tree to provide protective covering. But also to the society itself—which might lose the innovative surge that leads to the transformation society would normally undergo every generation or two in the past.
The result is almost a caricature: the lone child who grows up with a phone within easy reach, who has no sibling and fewer friends outside the home than ever before, who is less eager to move out of his parents’ house and begin a life of his own, who entertains himself with computer games rather than the card games or canasta his grandparents might have played, who is more likely to delay marriage or forgo it altogether. He’s his own man (or woman), after all—something that has been impressed on him over and over again during his early life.
Douthat is not the only one observing these generational changes. He cites many other authors who share his concerns. But is he ringing the alarm too quickly? Must we correct these changes to avoid the cultural shutdown that could signal the beginning of the end of our society? Or is this just a slump in inventiveness that will eventually give way to another burst of cultural energy?