Is ‘affluenza’ our collective consciousness?

On June 15, 2013, a horrific tragedy occurred in Tarrant County, Texas. Sixteen-year-old Ethan Couch, driving under the influence of alcohol and drugs, killed four and critically injured several others. Judge Jean Hudson Boyd sentenced him only to probation and therapy, buying the defence’s argument that the teen was suffering from “affluenza.”

As defined by the 2001 book Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic (Graaf, et al), affluenza is "a painful, contagious, socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety, and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more." The judge took pity on the teenager because, having been raised in a permissive, wealthy family, he was not cognizant of social boundaries; in other words, he had affluenza.

I was reminded of that infamous affluenza case when I heard some disquieting news out of Australia. Housing prices there are becoming prohibitive for young people. Many across the global north could say “Join the club.”

In 2021, Australia’s residential property values surged 23.7 percent. The ANZ Bank reported recently that property prices are increasing 8.1 times faster than household income and that servicing a mortgage in Australia consumes 39.3 percent of family income (after an average 10.8 years saving for a deposit). In 1981, 61 percent of the 25-34 age demographic were homeowners.  Now only 37 percent own homes. From Claire Lehmann’s April 1 piece in The Australian, “No home, no kids, and nothing left to lose:”

The unaffordability of housing has some serious hidden costs that are rarely acknowledged and discussed, the most profound being that the rising costs of housing is discouraging family formation. [emphasis added].

The price of housing, pursuing a career and maintaining a certain standard of living are all factors in the birth dearth. Australian fertility was 1.95 in 2010 and 1.58 in 2020. The current US fertility rate is 1.6.

The same situation is found across the global north from East Asia to the US and Canada to Western Europe. Housing costs are certainly “discouraging family formation.”

As in the rest of the West, Australia’s declining fertility is papered over with immigration. While mass immigration increases the number of workers, it suppresses wages. It also increases demand for housing, driving up property prices. This effectively locks many young people out of the housing market, leaving them susceptible to ever-rising rents. 

Why are we pricing ourselves out of existence?

One theory: much in this world comes down to the ties that bind. Through the millennia, faith, consanguinity, and place were foremost. History teaches us that the key to social cohesion, a must-have for healthy societies, is a shared civilizational ethos, a common zeitgeist, a compatible worldview. These are our collective consciousness, defined by Emile Durkheim as “the body of beliefs and sentiments common to the average of members of a society.” They are simply shared norms and values.

In the West, open borders, multiculturalism, “diversity,” identity politics, egocentrism, and promiscuity undermine collective consciousness. Folks from all over the place celebrating their differences, preaching “equality” while forging a Byzantine system of racial, ethnic, sexual and gender preferences is more like a dog-eat-dog state of affairs than a healthy society.

Power abhors a vacuum, and when an established, ages-old collective consciousness frays, crumbles, or altogether disappears, another will inevitably take its place. That is what appears to be happening across the global north.

In the Anglosphere and Western Europe, Christianity once reigned supreme. Sadly, especially among ruling elites, PC has supplanted Christian faith. Many churches have subordinated personal salvation to “social gospel” activism, the priorities of which change with the latest PC fad.  In today’s PC ideology, “diversity,” “tolerance” and “inclusion” mean there are no absolutes (because that would reflect bias) – and thus moral relativism holds sway.

The Book of Genesis (chapter 9, verse 7) commands, “And you, be ye fruitful, and multiply; bring forth abundantly in the earth, and multiply therein.” That biblical injunction has largely been forgotten.

In the Orient, the teachings of Confucius once held sway. The current government of China is attempting to harness a once-suppressed Confucianism to boost fertility. According to University of Wisconsin professor Yi Fuxian:

Cherishing the family and marriage is the core value of Confucian society. One of the principles of Confucianism is that "a man should alienate the king for his parents' sake, but never alienate parents for the king." Confucianism also advocates "big families, small government." 

Throughout the affluent countries, vast social welfare schemes and government retirement plans are in place. Make no mistake, they help many people and have done much to ensure a significant measure of social security. Yet in doing so, these plans have effectively displaced the family as stewards of social welfare. Today these government schemes are hurtling toward insolvency. There are not enough children being born to fund them going forward. 

Government is by nature inefficient and expansive, both in size and authority. Modern welfare states have become bloated beyond belief, sclerosed with bureaucracy, administratively unwieldy, and clearly unsustainable. Affluence gave rise to these welfare states. That same affluence is what drives up housing prices and much else. It has enabled a quite comfortable standard of living. We’ve become addicted to affluence. Family and children get in the way of our addiction.

Faith, or any uplifting collective consciousness, is essential for social cohesion. When one collective consciousness disappears, inevitably a new one arises. Being (materially) successful – i.e., affluent – is now our collective consciousness. Witness the rise of the “Prosperity Gospel” amongst Christians. While the material benefits are many, it is killing the family. This is societal affluenza, our new collective consciousness, which in the longer term will lead to a monumentally more severe tragedy than that visited upon those innocent victims in Texas.

Since that 2013 Texas tragedy, this corrupted collective consciousness – “the dogged pursuit of more” – is no longer working so well. In the past, people did not have children because they wanted more (materially). Today it is because they cannot afford them (financially). Affluenza is no longer delivering rising prosperity. Especially in the West, the up-and-comers are finding it much more difficult to attain the standard of living that their parents enjoyed.

It’s time for a new collective consciousness. Maybe we should redefine “prosperity.”

The question should not be: “Can we afford to have children?” It should be: “can we afford not to?”


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