The other morning I cycled around the Dutch town where I grew up. Behind our old house, the field where I spent half my childhood is now covered with homes. So is my old football club. My high school is now in a built-up area. At the local train station, the bike shed was full on a Saturday afternoon. When I got to Amsterdam, the business-traveller economy appeared to have broken down: endless waits for Ubers, nobody at hotel reception, restaurants closed at lunchtime for want of waiters.
I know over-construction and understaffing are now global problems, but they are particularly acute in the Netherlands. The country has run out of space and staff. Sure, a recession may temporarily loosen the jobs market, but the problem was acute pre-pandemic and will simply resurface whenever growth resumes. The Netherlands is probably the first country to hit the limits of economic growth.
Other overdeveloped places such as the Bay Area, New York and Singapore may follow, running out of room for new workers and businesses. This raises the question: can a rich place be happy if its economy stops growing?
With hindsight, the Netherlands was too well-suited to the era of globalisation. The trading nation with Europe’s biggest port experienced 26 years of unbroken economic growth until 2008, then a world record. Now it tops ETH Zurich’s KOF Globalisation Index as the world’s most globalised country.
And so its population mushroomed. When the counter hit 14 million in 1979, Queen Juliana said, “Our country is full.” In 2010, Statistics Netherlands said the population would probably never reach 18 million. Today it’s 17.7 million and rising…