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Stuart Birks

Stuart Birks

Thinking of the Future

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Central to the issue of policy making is the fact that we do not influence the present, but we may influence the future. When determining policy objectives it is important, therefore, to consider not so much what is wrong now, but what may be unsatisfactory in the future. A focus on present circumstances may result in poor decisions. Even left alone, things will change over time. Hence, to give an economic example, it could be wrong to clamp down on inflation when an economy is already heading into a downturn. As inflation is already set to fall, the policy might deepen the downturn, giving a deeper trough, or a “hard landing” rather than a “soft landing”.

We are living in a period of major changes in education and employment patterns, in the age and gender distribution of our population and in policy on families. This offers much food for thought. Are we focusing on foreseeable future issues, or is attention too heavily concentrated on current indicators?

Each new generation has its own view of the world, and this shapes the perspectives taken and issues that receive attention. Hence those who lived through the depression years of the 1930s might have tended to be frugal, whereas those growing up in the years after World War II experienced and expected continued prosperity and full employment. It may also be that each generation is caught by surprise as different events unfold. Will today’s young people be caught by surprise? Can we anticipate what their issues will be?

Foretelling the future is a dangerous task, and there are many examples of predictions that were way off the mark. Some areas are relatively safe, however. We have a reasonable idea how many 70-year-olds we will have in twenty years’ time, as most of them will be here as 50-year-olds now. Similarly, the teachers, doctors and builders of the future are being trained now.

I came across some interesting data recently in “Optometrist and Dispensing Optician Workforce — Summary Results from the 2005 Workforce Annual Survey”, http://www.nzhis.govt.nz/publications/opto04.pdf. They showed active optometrists in 2004 by age and sex, as in the following graph:

While the overall data show something rapidly approaching gender balance, men dominate in the older age groups and women in the younger ones. If we roll this forward 20 years, rather than gender balance, we will have a predominantly female workforce. Those who are looking at data overall may be pleased with the current situation, but if we break this down by age cohort, it would appear that apparent gender equality overall is being achieved through high levels of inequality for the younger age groups. If gender inequality is considered a problem to be overcome, as has been strongly promoted in policy circles, shouldn’t we be concerned that we may simply be reversing the problem rather than eliminating it?

We can already see signs of a reversed imbalance. For example, women now significantly outnumber men in tertiary enrolments, and men’s proportion of the school teaching workforce has shrunk markedly over the past thirty or so years, along with their virtual elimination from the early childhood sector. Even in population numbers, there are some younger cohorts where women outnumber men to an extent similar to that after the First World War. What are the men doing, and where are they going? What effect will the imbalance have for those age groups in ten, twenty or thirty years? Are there issues here that merit attention?

People also react to their environment. There is more scope to change in the longer run. What will be the long-term effects of changes in family structure and policy, currently high rates of relationship breakdown, and the heavy involvement of the law in these cases and those of ex-nuptial births?

I recall growing up in England with the expectation, in my social circles at least, that a man would put all his assets into his marriage, whereas it would be accepted and possibly encouraged for a woman with some means of her own to keep those separate. This reflected their different specialisations, the possibility, however slim at that time, of marriage breakdown, and prevailing matrimonial property law. The law has changed markedly since then, and relationship breakdown is highly likely. The attitude of Sir Paul McCartney in not protecting his assets with a pre-nuptial agreement, while understandable for one of his generation, might seem naïve and foolhardy among today’s twenty-year-olds.

As people gain greater experience of the Property Relationships Act and the real implications of the Child Support Act, for example, how will their behaviour and their life choices change? To what extent will young people specialise and make a commitment to their relationships? Will they consider it worth while building up their earning power if there may be limited benefit to them from this? What environment will they create for their children? As may be the experience of every generation, they may try hard to avoid the mistakes of the generation before them, but they also inherit the legal and institutional structures set up by and for that previous generation. Will they follow their parents, with high rates of relationship breakdown, or will they react against this? Instead of seeing an unsatisfactory marriage as an unfulfilling trap from which to escape, might they focus on avoiding what they have observed, namely the financial and emotional costs of relationship breakdown? Will they simply avoid relationships altogether so as not to be risk the legal interventions in their lives?

We are not currently in a sustainable situation. Future family circumstances for many of today’s young people will not match those of today’s 40- and 50-year-olds. While yesterday’s children of separated parents may still have had grandparents in their lives, to what extent will this carry over to their children? How many still have close relationships with both parents, and how many of those parents are in a position to play a grandparenting roll? Particularly vulnerable relationships for those children would include those with their fathers and their fathers’ families.

People are reacting differently as a result of both changed attitudes and the changed legal environment. Has any analysis been done on the effects of the legal changes? If so, I have not seen it. If anything, the political argument in favour of the changes focused on selective aspects of individual rights, while ignoring many broader social implications.

The seeds of many potential future problems can be observed now. Many relationships have already broken down. Others are in the process of doing so. Gender imbalances in education can be seen within the school system. Today’s workplace imbalances among younger people may well feed through to imbalances in senior positions in twenty years. Should we be concerned?

Perhaps we could draw a parallel with another area where the future figures prominently, namely that of global warming. It is commonly argued that we should act now to limit future environmental problems. Are there not enough signs of possible future social problems to merit a rethink of current policies in those areas?

Stuart Birks is the director of the Centre for Public Policy Evaluation at Massey University, Palmerston North. He is an economist with a focus on policy formulation and implementation.