The system isn’t working – the West’s great danger from within

If the democratic establishment cannot deliver a more equitable reality, the door will be left open for alternatives.

January 2, 2017 21:53
3 minute read.

Computers. (photo credit: REUTERS)

As we look toward what 2017 may bring, the West appears to be in a state of almost unprecedented discord. The United States is more divided than at any time in living memory, while the European Union continues to fray. Underscoring a lack of purpose, the West finds itself coming to terms with its own impotence as tragedy continues to unfold in Syria. But the most potent threat is much closer to home. For too many, the Western economy is simply not working anymore. There is a dissatisfaction which, if allowed to fester, could cause irreparable damage.

Since the rubble of World War Two was cleared away, the West has embarked on a seemingly unstoppable march to greater prosperity. Each generation has built on the last, earning greater salaries, purchasing bigger properties, living more lavish lifestyles. Until now, this progression has constituted the natural order. Until now. Today, millennials find themselves peering over the side of a precipice. Research shows that in some Western countries, millennials will become the first generation to record lower lifetime earnings than their parents.

In a relatively short space of time, things have changed. The assumptions of a generation ago can no longer be taken for granted. Especially in four key areas, four traditional building blocks of stability and success. Affordable, quality higher education is not longer a safe assumption. Second, the property market has become less accessible. Third, job security has largely become a thing of the past. And last, meaningful pensions are now a rarity. There are varying reasons behind each factor, but they have combined to form a depressing and combustible mix.

This shift is so worrying that millennials are quite literally becoming the anxious generation, with statistics revealing significantly higher levels of anxiety and depression than in older generations. But the dissatisfaction is far from confined to a single age group. Many advocates of the “American dream” are having to reconsider their longheld assumptions. Working hard, attaining qualifications, paying taxes and positively contributing to society no longer guarantees a reward. And as this regression unfolds, those on the receiving end look on as others seemingly benefit handsomely. Whether it is the much-maligned bankers following the 2007 financial crash, or today’s “establishment” politicians, there is a perception that the system is working almost exclusively in favor of a privileged few. In Israel, the much-vaunted “start-up nation” continues to attract impressive investment. Yet only a relatively small number are reaping the rewards.

Crucially, this apparent economic injustice is chipping away at the very social contract which lies at the heart of Western society – the unwritten, often unspoken deal which promises security and comfort, if not prosperity, for those willing and able to do their bit for the common good. Almost 50% of Americans have no savings, while around two-thirds of British children living in poverty have at least one working parent. Despite their best efforts, too many people are being financially left behind.

But what is perhaps most alarming is that there appears to be little if any urgency among Western leaders to address the imbalance or reset the current state of affairs. Although Israel provides perhaps an extreme example, it is far from the only Western country where the scarcity of affordable housing remains unanswered. And as people live longer across the Western world, straining public services and coffers, outdated pensions systems continue to operate as if this demographic time bomb didn’t exist.

This inaction is particularly perplexing given the dramatic political fallout of 2016. Quiet restlessness over today’s economic and social reality burst into a loud and clear voice, helping bring about both the election of Donald Trump in the US and the UK’s exit from the EU – two shock waves which were practically unthinkable a year ago. And unless Western leaders come together to take meaningful action, the tremors are unlikely to end there. 2017 could well deliver power to the French far Right – Fascism in the heart of Europe, just 70 years after it was defeated.

Lack of hope and loss of aspiration are toxic. When change appears impossible, disillusionment is directed not only at leaders, but the very system they head. If the democratic establishment cannot deliver a more equitable reality, the door will be left open for alternatives. Western democracy has no divine right to dominate. Failure to adjust and address the widening cracks in the economic status quo could end in disaster.

The author is a public relations and communications professional based in Tel Aviv.

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