The best cottages are time capsules. Old towels, old board games, old books. My in laws cottage is just this place. Everything is a bit musty; everyone a bit sunburned or else tipsy. Stuck for some dock reading recently I found myself dipping into the 1996 bestseller, Boom, Bust and Echo, by David Foote and Daniel Stoffman.
No doubt you’ll remember it well because just about everyone in the country either read it, or gave it to their father as a gift. Many will then remember the very entertaining David Foote as being on the speaking circuit for almost a decade (he was everywhere it seemed, the perpetual key note at every conference, every planning day.) A charismatic academic, he took the soft-ish science of demographics, supercharged it with a shot of boomer ego, and repackaged the whole shebang as modern day get-rich soothsaying. How “to profit from the oncoming demographic shift” was the gist. It was a potent mix. He created one of the most successful books in Canadian publishing history selling more than 250,000 copies.
Now, demographics we learned, could be aimed at many targets, but most readers were drawn to it as a crystal ball into financial markets. So, as I plucked the book off the cottage shelf, and realized it’d been 15 tumultuous years, I wondered, how’d he score? What did he get right? How much of his too-clever-by-half caveat of “demographics explains two-thirds of everything” would he need to bail himself out now the future has arrived?
Turns out that 1996 had a lot more in common with 1982, than it did 2012. And, that we are suckers for a charming storyteller with compelling bar graphs. With the call of the loon close by, a few pages in I realized that Boom wasn’t a book about the future at all, it was squarely a book about 1996.
Now please, I’m no economist, historian, or social scientist; I’m simply a reader and a participant in 2012. So, that said, I’m here to report I didn’t recognize today’s financial or most pressing social issues in Foote’s version of the future. His then-description of the Canada we now live in has aged badly.
Take housing. He couldn’t have been more wrong in assuring us what the housing markets were going to do. Our national baby boom demographics were not to be the driver of behaviour; rather, as I understand it, interest rates, greed, sweat equity, flipping, swaps, and interconnected economies stole the show. I also couldn’t find a bibliographic reference to the word “internet”, or a decent stab at its influence on, well it turned out, everything. While he did talk about immigration, it was only in the context of added influential weight to his tell-all demographic percentiles. How immigrants have changed cities and suburbs, to lightly probe one example, is a lot more complex than Foote made out, and that was well underway at the time. Though his discussion of health care affordability and the decline of tennis seem close to our lived experience.
What struck me most was how provincial a book it was. It focussed predominately on describing a middle-class Canadian society that would act and look a lot less homogeneously than Foote promised. He told us a great, if simple story. It was a tale of how our collective future would unfold, about what we would become and how we would, more or less, act. We were each his main character, and recognized ourselves, our parents, our children, clearly in his analysis. If we applied the teachings of demographics, we would profit. It was a national fortune cookie. We ate eagerly.
Of course, with the wisdom of hindsight (usually an unfair measure, but he opened this door, after all) Boom foretold very little. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a reason to revisit his book now. In fact, do. Look for it on a bottom shelf during your next visit to a cottage and take a step back in time. It says an awful lot about us, just not in the way he intended—and, spoiler-alert, it isn’t always flattering.
As we all know, the last 15 years have been about global things—markets, borders, security, branding, warming, and meltdowns. Surely Boom is a book that no one would write today because a bulge in Canada’s birthrates are but a drop in a now-globalized ocean. With each passing year, artifices like borders and national birthrates, become less and less meaningful, important, predictive. These days, surely, there are just too many variables for a book with a single premise like Boom to catch on. Though a wander down the e-book business and personal investing aisles would suggest otherwise. Sigh. I seems we yearn for Occam’s Razor—that appealing principle that urges us to select the hypotheses that makes the fewest assumptions. What is certain now is that back 1996, Foote held up a mirror and called it tomorrow. We liked what we saw.