Transcript of JBP Podcast titled ‘The Epidemic That Dare Not Speak Its Name’. In this podcast, Dr. Jordan B Peterson and Stephen J Shaw discuss the Birthgap, a term recently coined by Shaw– and the subject of his new documentary by the same name. In this interview, they examine the long building but invisible causes of what may be the most pressing issue facing the western world in the next few decades.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here:
DR. JORDAN B PETERSON: Hello everyone. I’m here today talking to Mr. Stephen J. Shaw. Stephen is a British national who has studied and lived on three continents. He trained as a computer engineer and then as a data scientist before starting his first film project, Birthgap, at age 49. He maintains the position of president of the data analytics company he co-founded, Autometrics Analytics LLC. Stephen holds an MBA graduate business degree from ISG in Paris, France, and is continuing his studies at the Harvard Extension School.
Looking very much forward today to delving into the issue of declining birth rates and population collapse. Something that’s not particularly on everyone’s radar. And the issue of the invisible epidemic of unplanned childlessness.
(Video clip: Why are people having so few children? The more I read about falling birth rates, everything was negative. You enter a downward spiral. As you have fewer and fewer children, you have fewer and fewer future mothers, which in turn goes on and on and on. And no society in history has been known to come out of that spiral.)
So I’m talking today with Stephen J. Shaw, who’s produced a documentary, Birthgap, that was originally released in its first version in 2021, and later version in 2022. And he’s been spending an awful lot of time delving into this particular problem. And so we’re going to walk through what he’s learned. Good to see you.
STEPHEN J SHAW: Thank you for inviting me.
DR. JORDAN B PETERSON: Hey, thanks for agreeing to talk. So let’s start with your background. We could walk through what you’ve been up to biographically. First of all, the situated. And then you can expand on that to the degree that you’re willing and able.
STEPHEN J SHAW: So historically for the last 20 years, I’ve been involved in data analytics, what we now call data science. I’m a part statistician, part coder, worked with some great academics and PhDs that we have on staff and coming up with academic models, forecasting models for industries, mainly in the automotive sector.
We try and do short-term forecasting. What might people purchase? What should car companies build? What should they market? What should they give for incentives? Go into a very minute level.
DR. JORDAN B PETERSON: This is a private venture?
STEPHEN J SHAW: It is.
DR. JORDAN B PETERSON: And so it’s a corporation that offers these services?
STEPHEN J SHAW: Yeah, it’s a small niche corporation that’s been offering services to the world’s largest corporations for 20 years.
DR. JORDAN B PETERSON: And how did you get involved in that?
STEPHEN J SHAW: It was a startup in London 20 years ago. I personally moved to the U.S. We got a contract with Nissan North America, took me to L.A. And following that, yeah, I spent like 15 years following that company hands-on until around 2015, and bizarrely, and I should explain, I’m a lifelong learner. I’d gone, I got accepted into Harvard Extension School to become a degree candidate to keep my data science skills up to date.
And I was presented with some data that I just couldn’t believe on falling birth rates. So someone who is involved in forecasting, albeit short-term forecasting, realizing that we’ve got this fundamental problem with birth rates that’s ultimately going to affect, well, not just the number of potential car buyers. I mean, that’s the smallest problem in this overall, but that was, you know, something I felt almost ashamed of. Why do I know this? And then you expand that to what is this going to mean for the planet?
And as a father of three, my three children were just about still teenagers then, I felt a sense of failure that I hadn’t been preparing my children for the world they were about to enter into. You know, we all, I think, are led into the belief that sure, that the world’s population is growing, perhaps exponentially still. That’s what I would have said at that time, based on what I was learning. And I had no idea that the actual dynamics of everything from how work is going to be like, to how society is going to be like, to how pension systems are going to be like, is fundamentally flawed.
And at that moment, I realized something’s wrong because, you know what? The same trend was showing up for Germany and Italy and Japan.
DR. JORDAN B PETERSON: South Korea.
STEPHEN J SHAW: Yeah, well, South Korea was just a little bit later, just a little bit later. Just a little bit later, which is interesting. But something triggered in the early 1970s in Japan, Germany, Italy, and you can add Spain, Portugal, Switzerland, Austria, to cause a series of parallel trends. And yet, what I was reading from experts was that these are localized problems, but Japan is work-life balance. That in Germany, it’s something called Rabenmutter, which is the idea that parts of Germany, even today, for a woman to have a child and go straight back to work is really something that culturally shouldn’t be done. So that might cause some people to delay parenthood.
In Spain and Italy, it was down to high unemployment among the youth. Other areas, it was gender balance, etc. So all these localized reasons were being proposed. For me, as a data scientist, you could see clearly, and if I can give you an analogy, it’s one of your own. You were talking to Lex Fridman. You talked about the dragon, I think, in terms of the environment context. If someone finds a dragon and they scream, there’s a dragon.
And I love the analogy, and I still saw you use dragons quite a lot. So I thought I might too. It’s like you found this little dragon in Japan and the same kind of dragon in Germany and Italy at the same moment in time, and they’re starting to get bigger.
DR. JORDAN B PETERSON: So they’re lizards to begin with.
STEPHEN J SHAW: Right. I mean, they’re tiny. They’re the size of a kitten, I think, is the analogy I saw. And they’re getting bigger. And then suddenly they’re appearing in other neighboring countries, and it’s growing, growing, growing from there. So the idea that these are localized issues, to me, just did not make sense.
DR. JORDAN B PETERSON: So why do you think you were struck to begin with by the fact that birth rates were plateauing or declining? Because the typical response to that would be either, so what? There’s too many people on the planet anyways, or actually, it’s a net good.
So now you said you’re in a private company. Now, I should let everybody watching and listening know that one of the markers for the trustworthiness of a data analytic company is that people will actually pay for their information. And so it doesn’t necessarily mean that a private data analytic company is credible. But it does mean at least that they’ve been able to demonstrate their credibility enough so that they have paying customers. And that’s not an easy thing to manage.
And so you were doing short-term forecasting that was integrated into the capitalist economy, let’s say, to help people plan their product development and so forth. But you came across this data at a much broader level, indicating a plateauing birth rate or population growth. Why did that disturb you? Why did you think that was a problem?
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