In the study of demographics – a field that has had its share of doomsayers over the years – the irrepressible Joel Kotkin has been a continuing voice of optimism. The Distinguished Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and an authority on economic, political and social trends as well as demographics, Kotkin has also been one to defend suburbia as one of the key ingredients of successful urban development.
It’s been interesting to watch how these views have played out in relation to the predilection of many in the American elite to denigrate anything pertaining to the suburban lifestyle. In their characterization, “suburbia” is synonymous with faceless neighborhoods punctuated by numbingly similar commercial strip developments featuring cookie-cutter national chain stores and restaurants. The only difference between suburban Los Angeles and suburban Chicago is the palm trees.
The suburban mindset has also been maligned by many as being obsessed with material pursuits and economic upward mobility … and possessing little if any thinking that’s “progressive.”
As an example of this side of the debate, the publication of Richard Florida’s book The Rise of the Creative Class – with its claims that metropolitan areas with high concentrations of high-tech employees, artists, musicians and gay people correlate to a higher level of economic development – articulates a theory that has been far better received by the news media and other members of the American intelligentsia.
Now, along comes Kotkin’s newest book … and with it his latest intriguing predictions. In The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, Kotkin argues that the coming 40 years will witness a resurgent America, even as the population swells by another 100 million souls. Comparing the birth rates of America to all other developed nations, along with the continued in-migration of people from other countries – particular Asian and Latin American – Kotkin contends that no other country anywhere will enjoy such ethnic diversity. And to Kotkin, youth and diversity equate with strength.
By contrast, Kotkin maintains that “most of the developed countries in both Europe and Asia will become veritable old-age homes.” Many of these nations, with their generous social safety nets, will face huge pension obligations without having younger workers to help shoulder the costs.
Kotkin’s bottom-line prediction is that Europe and Asia will decline even as America thrives. And not just economically but also culturally: “The most affluent, culturally rich and successful nation in human history.”
Kotkin also believes that the large new numbers of Americans will flock to – where else – the suburbs, which he characterizes as “the best, most practical choice for raising their families and enjoying the benefits of community.”
No doubt, there will be those who question Mr. Kotkin’s conclusions and predictions. What about the rise of China? How will illegal versus legal immigration affect social and economic trends? How about the widening gulf between the earning power of “technocrats” and the rest of the population? Not to mention the collapse of the family unit which has rendered so much of the fabric of “inner-urban” America dysfunctional at best … hopeless at worst?
Either way, this book is very interesting and helps us reappraise some of the “big trends” in social demography. The theories of Richard Florida’s “creative class” ring decidedly less compelling today, barely six or seven years on. It’s time now to consider Joel Kotkin’s interesting theories — with the same critical eye, of course.