Post-war generations let the good times roll for too long

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Post-WWII generations leaving behind a toxic legacy

Among many of us in the generations that have done well out of the post-World War II period, there is a feeling of guilt - as there should be. The poisoned bequest we are leaving behind stems from our neglect.

The relative ease of living for post-war generations in affluent democracies has been the outcome of an implicit collective agreement not to disturb conditions, in which living standards increased, choices widened, societies became more permissive, security was guaranteed by US hegemony and state benefits became - mostly - more generous.

Dread has lingered recently because one element in the legacy - security guaranteed by nuclear weapons - feels less secure given reports that North Korea is developing nuclear missiles that can strike the US and much of Europe - as well as South Korea and Japan.

Former US Defence Secretary William J. Perry wrote that Russia is "well underway" in its nuclear rebuilding programme, and the threat of nuclear catastrophe is greater than during the Cold War.

Government debt is less dramatic than nuclear annihilation but narrows the future economic choices available.

To give the citizens covered by welfare states the ability to buy cars, travel and indulge in other leisure pursuits along with necessities, most Western states have taken on huge public debts. That of the US topped US$20 trillion (S$27 trillion) for the first time earlier this year.

So far, it can afford it; some countries with higher debt relative to gross domestic product can't. Italy has the highest level of debt in Europe after Greece, and had its credit rating cut from BBB+ to BBB by Fitch Ratings in April.

Mr Wolfgang Schauble, the German Finance Minister, warned that "growth of public and private debt" posed a large risk - a fear echoed by the managing director of International Monetary Fund, Ms Christine Lagarde. The global economy is growing, but a collapse through debt could spark another recession, this time with even more serious turbulence.

The world's ecology gets no better and may get worse - considering US President Donald Trump announced a withdrawal from the Paris Agreement on climate change in June.

New infectious diseases are erupting more frequently, spreading more quickly and evading treatment more efficiently, raising fears of global pandemics starting in overcrowded developing cities, carried worldwide by aircraft.

And another modern "plague" - obesity - is rocketing upwards. A study in the medical journal The Lancet showed that obesity among children worldwide has increased tenfold in 40 years.

These and other fundamental threats demand strong responses, but governments, especially in democracies, are weaker.

The World Economic Forum reported that "there has been an erosion of trust in political institutions and processes", and "there is a fundamental disconnect between citizens around the world and the elected officials that supposedly represent them". In other words, crises are growing as the efficacy of governments shrinks.

Post-war generations, especially the "boomers" (my own) have let the good times roll for too long. These concerns are no longer the subject of academic discussion or obscure papers. They are real, present and known to us.- REUTERS

The writer co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is senior research fellow.