So what if Europeans have a little fun now and then? Well,fun has consequences. Declining fertility pushes up the age of the citizenryand shrinks the percentage of people in the workforce, and so impedes growth.Demographic changes also shape the hiring and promotion structures ofindividual companies, and not necessarily for the better; if the elderly clingto the best jobs well past retirement age, younger workers may have to wait anextra decade, perhaps longer, to get their turn. And because younger workersare a major source of new ideas, slowing down the ascendancy of the nextgeneration may retard the pace of technological change. (If fertility ratesremain as low as they have been, Italy's population will fall by half in 50years. Naturally, politicians are doing everything they can. They are joiningwith the Holy See and telling young women: Please procreate.)
In another way, Europe's culture confounds economists.Citizens of Europe's wealthy countries are not working longer hours to makehigher salaries and accumulate more goods. Rather, European culture continuesto prize long vacations, early retirements, and shorter work weeks overacquiring more stuff, at least in comparison to many other developed countries,such as the United States. In my observation, those living in most WesternEuropean countries appear to be more content than Americans with the kind ofcommodities they already have, for example, not aspiring to own more TVs perhousehold. Set aside whether that's virtuous. A promenade in the Jardin duLuxembourg, as opposed to a trip to Walmart for a flat-screen TV, won't helpthe European Union's GDP growth.
Of course, China faces its own demographic nightmares, andskeptics point to many obstacles that could derail the Chinese bullet trainover the next 30 years: rising income inequality, potential social unrest,territorial disputes, fuel scarcity, water shortages, environmental pollution,and a still-rickety banking system. Although the critics have a point, theseconcerns are no secret to China's leaders; in recent years, Beijing has provenquite adept in tackling problems it has set out to address. Moreover, historyseems to be moving in the right direction for China. The most tumultuous localdispute, over Taiwan's sovereignty, now appears to be headed toward aresolution. And at home, the government's increasing sensitivity to publicopinion, combined with improving living standards, has resulted in a level ofpopular confidence in the government that, in my opinion, makes major politicalinstability unlikely.
Could Europe surprise us by growing substantially more thanI have predicted? It seems farfetched, but it could happen, either by Europeanscurtailing vacations and siesta time to adopt a more workaholic ethos, or bymore young women and their partners aligning their views of sex more closelywith those of the pope than those of movie stars. Anything's possible, butdon't bet on it -- Europeans seem to like their lifestyles just fine, and they'velong since given up their dreams of world domination. An unexpectedtechnological breakthrough could also shake things up, though this isn't thesort of thing economists can base predictions on.
To the West, the notion of a world in which the center of globaleconomic gravity lies in Asia may seem unimaginable. But it wouldn't be thefirst time. As China scholars, who take a long view of history, often pointout, China was the world's largest economy for much of the last two millennia.(Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong, reckons China has beenthe globe's top economy for 18 of the past 20 centuries.) While Europe wasfumbling in the Dark Ages and fighting disastrous religious wars, Chinacultivated the highest standards of living in the world. Today, the notion of arising China is, in Chinese eyes, merely a return to the status quo.