Friday, July 25, 2008

Managing Expectations

The population issue is once again in the news with the Catholic Church dishing out its usual criticism of the population management bill pending in Congress. Our good Archbishop Lagdameo, the CBCP president, is leading efforts against the bill and even staged a well-attended rally in Iloilo City yesterday. It has sort of become an annual event, this debate on whether or not government should adopt a more aggressive and pro-active stance on population management. The problem is, the Catholic leadership is not even willing to concede that the Philippines has a "population problem" arguing that it is mismanagement and corruption that keeps our people poor and citing that the countries with zero growth rate are now experiencing problems with their health care and social security systems. But let me cite a line from the book "Earth in the Balance" authored by former U.S. Vice President Al Gore:

"From the emergence of modern humans 200,000 years ago until Julius Caesar's time, fewer than 250 million people walked on the face of the earth. When Christopher Columbus set sail for the New World 1,500 years later, there were approximately 500 million people on earth. By the time Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence in 1776, the number had doubled again, to 1 billion. By midway through this century, at the end of World War II, the number had risen to just above 2 billion people.

In other words, from the beginning of humanity's appearance on earth to 1945, it took more than ten thousand generations to reach a world population of 2 billion people. Now, in the course of one human lifetime, the world population will increase from 2 billion to more than 9 billion, and it is already more than halfway there."

Given the facts and figures, the Church's stand could best be described as "willful ignorance." Not only is the world population increasing but it is increasing very very rapidly. Moreover, the present generation (which has since been dubbed the "Me Generation") have acquired a sense of entitlement and attachment to all things material. A typical individual today requires more resources to "survive" than his ancestors. Overpopulation and the "consumerist lifestyle" is the root cause of pollution, denudation of tropical forests, depletion of minerals and other natural resources, etc. etc. All these are "shocking" the earth and upsetting the natural equilibrium leading to the modern phenomenon called global warming. Man, in the past, was at the mercy of nature. Today nature is at the mercy of man.

"Human civilization is now the dominant cause of change in the global environment. Yet we resist this truth and find it hard to imagine that our effect on the earth must now be measured by the same yardstick used to calculate the strength of the moon's pull on the oceans or the force of the wind against the mountains. And if we are now capable of changing something so basic as the relationship between the earth and the sun, surely we must acknowledge a new responsibility to use that power wisely and with appropriate restraint. So far, however, we seem oblivious of the fragility of the earth's natural systems."

I shudder to think what will happen to the world once the human population reaches the 9-billion mark. Quality of life will definitely be lower than now. Let's discuss just one basic human need - housing - and how overpopulation has affected it.

In the 1950s/1960s, single income households were the norm - the father works, the mother stays at home - and on a single salary, a typical couple could afford to make a downpayment on a house, buy a Volkswagen Beetle and have money left to send their kid's to private Catholic schools. There might even be money left to enable the family to go on an outing once a month. That is all gone now. Nowadays, both the father and mother have to work just to be able to provide the standard of living which thirty years ago only one breadwinner can provide. Indeed, double-income households have become the norm and the term "working mom" (a woman who is able to strike a good balance between family and career) has since become an ideal. Some households are even multiple-income, with unmarried adult children living and "chipping in" the household expenses (this may be the next "wave of the future"). Not only that, many Filipinos have to leave their families and work abroad thus further breaking up the fabric of family ties.

In today's typical working household, the entire salary of one spouse is allocated just for the house amortization while the salary of the other working spouse goes to the kid's tuition and living expenses. Thirty years ago a single-income couple could afford to buy a 450 square meter lot in Housing Mandurriao. Nowadays, even families with OFWs abroad can barely afford the same today. And lot sizes are getting smaller and smaller. A 180-square meter lot is now considered "big." Even in a provincial city like Iloilo (where land is relatively cheaper than in Manila), you can hardly find a housing development offering cuts of 450 square meters. It is by no accident that Metro Manila, the most densely populated area in the country, also has the most expensive land prices today. Land prices are directly proportional with population: the more people in a certain area, the more demand for land and the more the demand, the more the prices go up. That's the law of supply and demand. Economics 101.

Housing is just one example of how the population explosion adversely affects our quality of life. Today's Generation Me (those born in the 1970s, 80s and 90s) are finding it harder and harder to duplicate the standard of living that their parents, the so-called Baby Boomers, gave them. And this is not because they are less-educated, less-motivated or lazier than their elders. On the contrary, the present crop are in fact better-educated, more driven and more ambitious than their parents. This is because since childhood we were taught to expect a great future, trained to demand the best things and told that we can be whatever we want to be. But after raising our hopes up and giving us a false sense or inflated view of our position in this world, our generation's expectations collide with the present reality: we may never get to achieve our dreams in life because there is just too many people competing for the same stuff. Just to attain what our fathers and grandfathers achieved, one has to work harder, be smarter or just plain lucky in today's world. For many of our generation, owning that 450 square meter house and lot in the city may no longer be within reach. We may no longer afford to send our children to exclusive schools and gone were the days where we can drive out of town on a mere whim (Hell, owning a car would once again be confined to the privileged few if fuel prices continue their present trajectory). There are just too many people angling for the the same things.

This is why our generation should teach the next generation (I wonder what label they will use for the children of Generation Me) how to manage their expectations. Because if we inflate their egos and teach them to love material things, I am afraid that they will just end up disappointed in life. I observe that today's crop of 20-somethings seem to be very impatient to get ahead and are unwilling to "pay their dues" in the workplace. This is also a common lament I hear from my 30-something friends, many of whom run small businesses or are already corporate mid-level managers with several people under them - fresh college graduates asking unrealistic starting salaries, instant promotions, refusing to work on Saturdays, etc. In my day I was just happy to get a job right after graduation and didn't really mind the low salary because I thought that if I worked hard enough, the boss will notice and promote me. My advice to new graduates is: love your job first, be patient and the job will love you back. And manage your expectations and make it in line with reality - don't expect that you will become the senior vice president of the company after only 10 years no matter how talented or diligent you are.

Going back to the population management bill, I believe that it has better chances of passing in this 14th Congress than in all previous congresses. Notwithstanding Church opposition to it, 135 congressmen (or more than half) have already signified their support for it. I suspect many more are just quietly waiting for a "tipping point" or are suspending declaring their position on the bill for fear that they might be pressured by Church leaders to change their stand. Public opinion polls have time and again indicated that Filipinos want birth control and even some priests I know are quietly advocating it to their parishioners. Statistics also show that our growth rate will slow down to 1.95% for 2005-2010 (NSCB data) from the previous 2.3% annual average which seem to indicate that Filipinos have taken upon themselves, sans government intervention and despite Church opposition, to plan their families.

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