by Bruce Sterling,
Boom, Bust, & Echo:
How to Profit from the Coming Demographic Shift
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|Bulge, Squeeze, & Life Eternal
by David Eddie
Why has Boom, Bust, & Echo, a book about demographics, co-written by a University of Toronto prof, been No. 1 on the Canadian bestseller list week after week? Is it that Canadians are fascinated with demographic and intergenerational phenomena? After all, the last book in recent memory to squat so unbudgeably at the top of the list was Doug Coupland's Generation X. Maybe it's the subtitle, "How to profit from the coming demographic shift", with its vaguely apocalyptic overtones and promise of personal enrichment, pure ambrosia to Canadian readers. Or perhaps it's Professor Foot's tireless publicity campaign, his seamless loquacity and semi-ubiquity on radio, television, and in print (these days, genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent self-promotion).
Or maybe the reason behind Boom, Bust, & Echo's amazing crossover success is that it's a consistently interesting and provocative book. I suspect a lot of this has to do with Daniel Stoffman, the journalist Foot hired to "simplify" his professorial prose. Sometimes it goes too far, simple elides into simplistic, and one feels subtly talked-down-to-for example, the following sentence bothered me a bit: "Once you've read this book, you'll know enough to analyze demographic data yourself." How do Foot and Stoffman know I don't already know how to analyze demographic data? Maybe I'm a world-famous demographer reading the book on the plane to Stockholm to collect my Nobel prize in demography, having picked up Foot's book out of passing interest in a colleague's work....The next sentence is: "But before you can do that, you'll need to grasp the most demographic fact of all: every year each person gets a year older." Thanks-and while we're exchanging pointers here, before you write your next book, you'll need to grasp the most basic literary fact of all: stay away from the second person singular.
But that's a quibble, a pet peeve; for the most part, the combination of Stoffman's straight-arrow prose and Foot's excellent research make the demographic data relevant, fresh, and interesting, one step ahead of the interested layman, the well-informed generalist.
Foot/Stoffman's central contention in Boom, Bust, & Echo is that demographics accounts for "two-thirds of everything" (the title of the first chapter is "Two-Thirds of Everything"): what sort of music you listen to, what sort of car you drive, the sports you play, what foods you buy and where-and, as an extension of this, what stocks and products will do well when, generally speaking (hence the subtitle). The rest, the other one-third of "everything" (which Foot the economist appears to define as "everything that can be bought or consumed") is part the vagaries of the marketplace, part what you laughingly call your individuality.
I must say, I felt a tad uncomfortable with this assertion at first. Two-thirds of everything? Surely not...that may be true for others, but surely my glorious individuality accounts for at least nine-tenths of what happens to me? Then I came across the following passage: "On the other hand, perhaps you had the misfortune to enter the world in 1961, one of the worst years of the century to be born...Chances are life has been a struggle for you. And your parents, the lucky people who were born in 1937 or thereabouts, probably don't understand how tough that struggle has been..." Amen! After that, I was hooked...P.S. on this topic Foot/Stoffman have allowed themselves a rare editorial: "If...you were lucky enough to be born in 1937 or thereabouts and you've been successful, it wouldn't hurt to learn a little humility."
Foot is surprisingly sanguine about what will happen when the front-end Boomers retire. Whereas many people in my generation predict doom, disaster, the end of retirement as we know it after the front-end Boomers suck up all the CPP cash, dying under the lash at our fast-food jobs ("Do you want fries with that-argh...."), Foot foresees merely a "grey interlude", and believes it will be overall a good thing. In Chapter 11 (to me, that says it all), titled "An Older, Wiser Canada", he says: "If we prepare for the grey interlude to come, we can both enjoy the benefits and manage the inevitable challenges. Demographics enable us to do that because they give us the power to see the future. All we have to do is use it."
I don't know.... One thing I wonder if Foot has taken into account is increased longevity. Lately, for example, Demi Moore, a Deepak Chopra disciple, has been going around saying she plans to live to 130, at least. Scary! Many others are saying this, too, these days, drinking a gallon of water a day, eating only sixty percent of what they want (supposed to prolong life), taking longevity drugs like the DHEA-Boomers are refusing to go gentle into that good night. Think about it, though: if they all live to a 130, and retire at sixty-five-that's sixty-five years of retirement. Bringing them to the late twenty-first century, when-who knows?-maybe someone will invent a device or technique that will allow them (and especially Global President Demi Moore) to live forever.
That's the world Bruce Sterling has imagined in his new book, Holy Fire. Bruce Sterling is, along with William Gibson, one of the co-founders of the cyberpunk movement in "speculative fiction" (formerly known as science fiction). Normally I wouldn't mention a sci-fi book, but this one is as good as they get, and a healthy counterpoint to Foot's blue-sky predictions about the future.
Sterling foresees a future run by wealthy "gerontocrats", all pushing 100, at least, most of whom have grown wealthy simply by virtue of having lived a long time and watching their investments grow, and are obsessed with prolonging their mostly empty lives as long as possible, à la Demi Moore. They are the oppressors of an underemployed, mainly homeless underclass of younger people who live in parks, do an amazing array of drugs (including "entheogens", which help the user have religious feelings), and try by whatever pitiful means at their disposal to undermine the authority of the gerontocracy. Holy Fire is the story of one gerontocrat, Mia Ziemann, who undergoes radical surgery to become young again, and gives up all her wealth to hang around with a group of young "artificers".
The future world of Holy Fire is brilliantly imagined: a future of talking dogs with their own television shows, edible buildings, scarves that turn into computer screens, a future in which the different generations have different languages, different currencies-"Can you give me some real adult money for this?" a young person pleadingly asks Mia Ziemann in the beginning of the book. "Oh, no etc." Like most speculative fiction (in my opinion), Holy Fire isn't quite high art; next to a good old-fashioned novel it strikes me as a shade thin and watery; but like the best of science fiction, it offers a pointed insight into where we are and where we're going.
Random House Canada published David Eddie's novel Chump Change this September. Everything about him is explained by the fact that he was born in 1961.