Hugh Hefner and the End of Civilization

Hef's fun may work on the small scale, but writ large is devastating.

Since the passing of Hugh Hefner, founder of Playboy magazine and internationally-known bon vivant, several of our authors have explored the impacts of his life on our culture from various points of view.

Most pundits would agree that Mr. Hefner's life affected modern civilization - but ended it?  Our notion of Mr. Hefner bringing about the end of civilization may sound like mere clickbait hyperbole, though on that basis alone, it seems to be working.

Few people think about the enormous amount of effort needed to sustain a highly complicated civilization such as ours.  The impact Mr. Hefner's life and work has made our ability to do that significantly less likely over the long term.

E Pluribus, Unum

Consider a symphony orchestra.  A top-quality outfit has about 100 musicians.  Each musician has spent at least 10 years and more likely 20 practicing to develop the skills required to play at that level.

Thus, just one orchestra represents at least 1,000 person-years of intense practice by artists who are striving to perform classical music.  Much of musical training, far from being paid labor, required payment to others for lessons.  This doesn't include the effort required to create the instruments, or the efforts of many more musicians who wanted to play at that level but couldn't make it.

The skills and societal infrastructure needed to sustain such complex organizations can be completely lost in one generation if not enough young people put in the time needed to develop the skills.  And they can be lost faster than that if the society lacks the resources to feed musicians whose labors don't increase the food supply.  A symphony orchestra, like most of the arts, is possible only in a civilization wealthy enough that a lot of people can live without having to labor themselves to raise food.

Although the positions of running petrochemical plants or automobile factories are not quite as competitive, it takes years of study and experience to be able to operate any one of these essential elements of our civilization.  If we don't have enough petrochemical engineers, we won't have enough diesel fuel to run our farm machinery and the resulting food shortages won't be pretty at all.  The same is true for literally thousands of critical skills which are needed to keep our civilization going.

If we can't find people with the skills to run automobile plants, we won't have the vehicles to get the diesel fuel from the refineries to the places where it is needed.  If there aren't enough people to maintain elevators, our cities become unlivable.  The recent hurricane in Puerto Rico is a vivid illustration of what happens to our civilization when transporting fuel becomes difficult - people are drinking suspect water and washing clothes in streams and wringing them out by hand, rather than doing whatever productive labor they may have been expensively trained to do.

The Family Controversy

The Philadelphia Enquirer recently published "Paying the price for breakdown of the country's bourgeois culture" which makes the obvious point that our society is in trouble:

Too few Americans are qualified for the jobs available. Male working-age labor-force participation is at Depression-era lows. Opioid abuse is widespread. Homicidal violence plagues inner cities. Almost half of all children are born out of wedlock, and even more are raised by single mothers. Many college students lack basic skills, and high school students rank below those from two dozen other countries.

The authors state that there are many causes of societal dysfunction, but the root cause of our decline is the loss of beneficial cultural norms: get married before having babies, get the best education you can, work hard, avoid idleness, go the extra mile for the boss, be patriotic, neighborly, civic-minded and charitable.  Avoid coarse language, respect authority, avoid drugs and crime.

These rules began to break down in the 1960's, fueled by the welfare system which made fathers financially redundant, as well as an acceptance of the mistaken idea that everyone would be better off if cultural norms were weakened.  Getting married leads to loss of welfare benefits and increases marginal tax rates.  We now know that the fact that the government pays a woman's expenses can't compensate for the lack of a father's help in civilizing her children.

These customs were never universal and there was a great deal of hypocrisy, but the first rule, "get married before having babies" is perhaps the most important because it leads to children growing up with both a mother and a father.  We now know that fatherlessness is strongly associated with crime and poverty fueled by lack of education.

Most of our upper middle class tends to follow these traditional rules.  Highly educated women get married before having children, and most educated couples stay married long enough to pour lavish resources into preparing their children to be successful adults in our highly complex, competitive civilization.

The lack of capable people to fill many of our open positions will become worse and worse, however, because upper middle class people simply don't have enough children to keep average IQ high enough to sustain our demanding technology - the 2010 census estimated an overall average of 2.58 people per household.  This is a truly vital matter:

Previous research has found that there is a statistically significant, positive link between country-level IQ and various measures of aggregate production, such as GDP.

In other words: the smarter your overall population, the more complex your civilization can be, but the harder it is to maintain because so many different skills are needed to keep it going.

It Takes Work

Training a child from infancy to the point of knowing how to be a productive member of any civilization has always cost a great deal of money and effort.  The more complicated the civilization, the more effort is required.

The Japanese culture is among the most complex in the world.  The effort required to learn to read and write their language alone is the equivalent of 3 years of full-time study, spread through the first 12 grades of school.  Many of the skills which are necessary to be an acceptable Japanese require a great deal of study beyond that.

Although the Japanese have one of the finest public education systems in the world, raising children to Japanese standards required that mothers put in a great deal of effort teaching their children on top of the 280 days of each school year.  It's not possible for a mother to do that while holding a full-time job.

This problem is made worse by the fact that Japanese people are living so long.  Confucian tradition requires that children take care of their aged parents; no society can afford to do that.  This wasn't too bad two generations ago when farmers stopped working in their late 50's and died by the mid- to late-60's while providing baby-sitting services in the meantime.  It's quite another matter when they live to be more than 100.  Instead of spending a few years taking care of one or at most two ancestors, four oldsters will need care for 20 years or more.

Even if a woman doesn't have a career, raising children is impossible while trying to take care of so many aged parents or in-laws.  So few women are taking on the additional burden of child-raising that the Japanese birth rate has dropped below replacement and the population is going down.  Japanese civilization will end if the population drops too low to have enough practitioners of all the many skills needed to keep Japanese culture operating.

What About Hef?

How do we relate this to Mr. Hefner?  He helped to lure women away from motherhood by expanding their opportunities to do something else.

Until the industrial revolution got underway, a woman had to persuade a farmer to feed her to survive at all.  Children were an economic asset because they could start working on the farm by the time they were 3 or 4 years old, handling increasing laborious tasks with each additional year.

When the Amoskeag Mills opened in Manchester, NH in the 1860's, a woman could get a job and earn a living without a man, but she didn't earn enough to pay for child care, so she couldn't have children.  By the early 1960's, a few women were able to get jobs as nurses or clerical workers that paid enough to cover child-care costs, but so few women worked that the population wasn't affected.

Mr. Hefner made it possible for a great many women to make a living by trading on their appearance.  A few women had always done that - remember the "oldest profession" - but not many.  Hef made it possible, as well as acceptable, for women to find work flaunting their appearance in Playboy clubs where they earned a great deal more money via fatter tips than waitresses in more conventional establishments.

This has expanded women's opportunities so much that the term "breastaurant" was coined to describe establishments of this nature.  Of course, there aren't nearly enough such jobs to have much of an effect, but most Playboy bunnies had no intention of making it a career.  They wanted to use the opportunity to gain more attention from men to leverage themselves into other, more profitable jobs; many did.

At the same time, other women who didn't care to pose for Playboy also sought out employment in fields traditionally reserved for men.  They found the societal barriers falling and moved on in, leading to today's world where women are actively sought out and in many cases preferred.  We hear about the "wage gap" in which men are supposedly paid more than women, but today's young female college graduates earn more than men their own age.  Recent research shows that the gap comes with motherhood - childless women who work the same hours are paid as much as men.

In addition to championing non-traditional lifestyles for women, Hef also popularized the idea that it was OK for women to become involved in casual affairs whenever they wanted.  To be fair, he didn't do this alone.  Helen Gurley Brown defined "That Cosmopolitan Girl" who made no bones about having short-term sexual affairs at will and wasn't interested in having children.  The debate whether Ms. Brown and Mr. Hefner liberated women by expanding their opportunities or turned them into sex objects whose value was purely physical continues to this day.

Given the possessiveness and jealous nature of men, women who liberate themselves in this manner but then decide that they want to be mothers after all find it harder to attract men who're willing to sign up for decades of marriage during which they'll help raise children.  The Philadelphia Enquirer editorial bemoaned the fact that so many women are simply having children without bothering to get married - which, thanks to the political pressure of modern feminism, they are able to afford by passing their maintenance costs off to society at large.

This is unfortunate indeed; we've seen fatherless mobs burning down Detroit and Newark, and start on Baltimore.

The editorial didn't comment on the fact that so many capable women deciding not to have children at all will be equally destructive.  The fatherless mobs are violent in part because they didn't have fathers to teach them to control themselves, but also because in many cases they didn't receive sufficient education, or a sufficiently useful education, to be able to do anything productive with their lives.

If there aren't enough babies being born, as in Japan, society is doomed slowly.  But if babies who are born aren't raised to become capable, competent, self-disciplined adults, there won't be enough capable young people coming along to maintain our civilization.  We'll collapse into the darkness of Detroit, thanks to women being liberated from having fathers help civilize their children.

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Society.
Reader Comments

Interesting article, but it would have been more so if it discussed a re-ordering of society besides a return to "barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen." With an educated society bent on rising up on Maslov's needs hierarchy, self-actualization becomes a bigger issue("I didn't go to college to get an MRS. degree.") A re-ordering of societal values differently than today's is also critical.

October 25, 2017 12:36 PM

The trouble is, the "barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen" may not be much fun for women a lot of the time, but it's also the only proven way to organize a society that actually works for the long term. The modern feminist mode may certainly be a whole lot more appealing for individual women for a few generations, but our society is clearly falling apart, so that mode is known not to work for the long term. Is there a third way somewhere in the middle? That would be nice, but we have yet to discover it apparently.

October 25, 2017 4:40 PM

Patience, I agree. We have yet to discover that third way. Various cultures are making progress towards but unintended consequences are being discovered all the time. The whole concept of a "job" has only been around for about 300 years. Prior to that, people just were - as in a shoemaker, a sailor, a baker and so on. People routinely became what their parents were and for women, it was almost always the same - homemaker. Having been a stay-at-home dad some 15 years ago, I was in a minority of men and always felt looked-down-upon when out of earshot. I did come to appreciate the role of the homemaker, much more so than my male counterparts did. I don't know how my mother, an English teacher with a degree from Michigan, stayed sane raising 6 children. It probably won't be in my lifetime, but I think in the next 50 years we will have begun to figure out what a post-modern family looks like.

October 25, 2017 5:50 PM

I guess I'm seeing Hugh Hefner's contributions over rated. Yes there has been a revolution in how families are made built and endure. It's gone from farm life in the 19th and dad work their rear ends off until the kids and their spouses can take over the chores. Labor was divided by brawn ( men) and preparing the next generation ( women) . To the urbanized 20th century where jobs took over from chores. Initially the brawn/family labor division held. But as work became more about brains...that division broke down. With the right preparation, women can develop and execute a strategic plan as well as a man. Think Mary Barra fixing the mess left at GM by a succession of men. No heavy lifting required. As that evolved, two things happened that accelerated that change...and neither seemed to require Mr. Hefner's intervention.
First was the birth control pill. Women could go out in the commercial world and if an indiscretion happened, they didn't have to pay the consequences of 18 years of child rearing. So they were free to socialize un escorted and and engage in the activities that make you a more valuable employee ( conventions, business travel, conferences etc).
Second was the Great Society and welfare state. If there was a mistake and child rearing was in the cards, the State would take the traditional role of the dad. OK not an effervescent upper middle class lifestyle, but an option that meant independence.
Yes Mr Hefner glamorized the promiscuous lifestyle. But but few women would have taken the chance
without the pill and guaranteed child support.

October 25, 2017 7:56 PM
Add Your Comment...
4000 characters remaining
Loading question...