March 30, 2013

Baby Boomers, a 'Gift from the Gods' and Parenting

Baby Boomers are perhaps the most doting parents in history. Never before has so much attention been paid to child rearing, child psychology and related issues. You don't see many books on parenting written prior to the mid-1900s.

In contrast, generations of parents prior to the Baby Boomers enforced harsh forms of punishment on their children. Go back far enough, and it was not uncommon for parents to beat children with various devices that would be considered weapons today. They did this out of 'love'. Frankly, many parents probably took out their frustrations, produced by a world of scarcity and struggle, on their children. In a sick form of resource allocation, some parents went as far as infanticide, particularly if a child suffered from deformity. Children were often seen as burdens, and, although today we treasure their innocence, as conniving conspirators.

In general, children were considered sub-human, thus enabling parents to maintain an emotional distance. In a world where infant mortality was shockingly high (even among the wealthy), perhaps it was reasonable for parents to view children this way. Today, the greatest bond many people have is with their children. Imagine if 2-3 of every four children died within the first few years of life. The emotional toll on parents, and society, would be devastating. Perhaps the only way to stay sane was to break the natural emotional ties between parent and child.

So what changed during the 20th century? Western parents now have children that they can emotionally and financially afford.

First, infant mortality rates fell dramatically over the past 100 years. This means that parents could allow themselves to grow more attached to their children without risking emotional devastation. Furthermore, with reduced infant mortality rates, parents have fewer children allowing them to devote attention to just 1-2 children.

Second, societal wealth - specifically, middle class wealth - has grown significantly over the past century. The 1950s and 1960s, in particular, saw great advancements in social programs such as universal health care and social security. This was partly driven by Keynesian-inspired government policies, as well as an economic revolution brought on by cheap, abundant energy.

By the 1950s, as free Western economies discovered more and more oil, the number of innovations related to the energy contained in oil was large. Like a 'gift from the gods', we were finding more and more ways to unleash the massive energy subsidy locked within fossil fuels. Oil use in plastics, transportation and agriculture replaced hard labour, reduced scarcity, lowered living costs and increased overall wealth. Petroleum-based pharmaceuticals also helped reduce infant mortality.

The gift from the gods occurred just as the Baby Boomers were coming of age. New-found wealth shaped the attitudes of this generation, which, without the day-to-day worry of survival, became more concerned with helping others. It is a cold fact that only in times of surplus do many worry about the fate of others. This generation will forever be remembered for its epic struggle against war and inequality. While some may argue that Baby Boomers failed to change the world, they certainly left their mark. This is most evident in the way they raised their kids.

The children of the Baby Boomer generation, despite popular complaints, are perhaps the most well-adjusted humans ever to walk the planet. Never before have parents dedicated so much financial and emotional investment, academic study and active engagement in their children. If children raised in abusive households are mal-adjusted, it is conceivable that children raised in loving environments are well-adjusted. Multiply that by most of the families in the Western world and you are left with a generation of well-adjusted people.

So what's my point? In general, the concept of this article can be summed as follows: Oil flows controlled by the West improved the standard of living of the average family - specifically, by expanding the availability of food, transportation, plastics, medicine and wealth. A better standard of living allowed parents to have fewer children and become more emotionally and financially invested in the parent-child bond, leading to greater empathy with their progeny. Greater empathy eradicated wide-spread child abuse, leading to a generation of well-adjusted children.

Assuming one agrees with my logic, I raise one question: what happens when/if the energy subsidy runs out?