Yuri van Geest’s opinion piece on The Age of Decadence, featured in the New York Times of February 7, 2020
“Decadence refers to economic stagnation, institutional decay and cultural and intellectual exhaustion at a high level of material prosperity and technological development. Under decadence. The forms of art as of life seem exhausted, the stages of development have been run through. Institutions function painfully. Repetition and frustration are the intolerable result. When people accept futility and the absurd as normal, the culture is decadent. And crucially, the stagnation is often a consequence of previous development: The decadent society is, by definition, a victim of its own success.”
To me this perspective is insightful even though it might be only one perspective or frame out of many. Why? I witness different institutions and (governmental) systems struggle with the current realities. We see significant and growing issues related to affordability, accessibility, lack of employees, too much workload and most importantly a lack of purpose, vision and sense of being human. Infrastructure, housing, healthcare, education, police, legal and farmers. Scalable efficiency above scalable learning. Technical systems above humans and nature. Technocratic above holistic KPIs. Corrupted access routes above equal access. In my homeland the Netherlands, in Europe and in the USA.
To me a decadent society is indeed a victim of its own success like the Icarus’ Paradox. It is a neologism coined by Danny Miller in his 1990 seminal book by the same name. The term refers to the phenomenon of businesses failing abruptly after a period of apparent success, where this failure is brought about by the very elements that led to their initial success. It alludes to Icarus of Greek mythology, who drowned after flying too close to the Sun. The failure of the very wings that allowed him to escape imprisonment and soar through the skies was what ultimately led to his demise, hence the paradox.
Decadence emerged in the last 20 years after an amazing and successful growth period in the last 150 years after the Second Industrial Revolution at the societal and economic levels. One of the most insightful books about this period is The Visible Hand by Alfred Chandler (a Pulitzer Prize winning book).
Decadence can be seen in the (digital) media landscape the last 40 years with increasing attention for form vs substance, polarization vs nuance, competition vs synthesis, fake vs real items as well as short content vs long content. We amuse ourselves to death resembling the famous prediction by author Neil Postman. We seem to enter A Brave New World more quickly these days than a 1984 as a dystopian future. All these media shifts have impacted our societies including companies and personal lives significantly. Just witness the (negative) impacts of Instagram for example. Above all, it creates an externalized and superficial sense of self and identity which creates substantial mental health problems like loneliness, anxiety disorders, depression and burnouts. The stats have doubled or quadrupled in the last 15 years in the 15-30 year olds. Only with valuable and conscious media consumption and deep personal experiences allowing a deepdive inside yourself you are able to tackle this mental challenges effectively. To feel grounded, to recognize quality in all its manifestations, to find your own Ikigai / passions & purpose, to renew yourself and to avoid your own personal decadence phase.
Decadence is not just about mindset and culture (even though those are the most important issues in my view) but also of (outdated) structure, KPIs, strategies, competencies, processes and technological systems. This decadence or stagnation is confirmed by top level thinkers, academics and authors like Peter Thiel, Eric Weinstein, Tyler Cowen and Robert Gordon. The opposite narrative is the Singularity (University), computer science and AI narrative. The exponential change narrative. To combine both perspectives we might end up with the following conclusions supported by the fascinating research in the latest book by Andrew McAfee called
More From Less:
The productivity growth stats of resources, commodities and materials has grown substantially the last 20 years (sometimes 50-150%) while the productivity growth stats of people or employees has been stagnating in the last 20 years in contrast to the decades before (aka the Great Decoupling)
The human lack of productivity growth might be related to all the dimensions mentioned above. especially mindset and culture. In a recent survey in 2018 during a Thinkers50 event in Denmark among 500 top CEOs in Europe complacency was mentioned as the number one problem and growth inhibitor for Europe. That resonates with the above.
In our newsletter we are aiming to disrupt our own decadence by embracing in our view the next phases of growth. Killing our own darlings and leaving pieces of the past behind. We invite to share your stories too.
Recommended reading / viewing:
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[…] of our political and medical leaders. Furthermore, the crisis might be a trigger to end/change the Age of Decadence. It is the ultimate Wake Up Call, taking into account the other challenges we have to deal with […]