Books,  higher ed

Education in an empty planet

I’ve been reading (well, listening to) Empty Planet by Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson. It makes the claim that the projections of global population growth are incorrect, and in fact after about the mid-century point, we will start to witness a global population decline. Many countries, such as Japan, are already experiencing this. I’m not enough of an expert to know if they are being selective with the data in their argument (this article suggests they are, but it too will have its own bias). But it’s credible enough, we already have fertility rates below the maintenance level of 2.1 babies per couple across Europe (Spain is as low as 1.3).

The general trend is for increased urbanisation (you don’t want many children if you live in a city or a slum compared with a farm), women’s empowerment (taking control of reproductive rights), loosening kin ties (family pressure people to have children in a way that friends don’t) and decreasing religiosity (if you are less devout then contraception becomes more likely), and all of these reduce the number of children people tend to have. That argument seems persuasive from one’s own experience and that of people you know.

Even if it is a little shaky in places, it made me appreciate how much of our world view is predicated on global population expansion. I don’t think about it much, but I suppose that it is the model I carry in my head. So it’s an interesting example of how challenging that assumption causes some significant shifts. If in 200 years time, say, the population of the UK was 40 million, with 10 million of those at what is currently post retirement age, and another 10 million in school or education, then that is a drastically altered society. The politics of population decline is very different, for instance it would need to be pro-immigration, provide free child care, remove disincentives for women to take career breaks, encourage part-time work for the over 67s, etc. As an aside, a real timebomb from Brexit could be that it has so trashed the UK’s reputation as a desirable place to come to, that by the time politicians wake up to realising that far from immigration being a burden, they in fact desperately need it to help boost the economy, it will be too late.

And what would the challenges be for higher education in such a scenario? Again, to reiterate I’m not suggesting the claims in the book are irrefutable, but rather playing the thought exercise of what if they were true. For a start higher ed provides an excellent means of attracting young, smart people to your country who may well remain, so it it is a route to bolster your population and economy. In terms of policy then you would need to do pretty much the opposite of what the Conservatives have done over the past 8 years. Costly fees put people off from studying here, but also have the side effect of making those with that debt postpone having children. A welcoming, easy visa (or open border) system would be necessary too.

Universities will be in increasing competition for fewer young students as that group declines, so they will need to appeal to older learners. The type of education offered will need to be flexible, as the traditional student profile of the 18-22 year old will no longer be the norm (we are already seeing this, but it will be amplified). Learners will likely be older, have care commitments (children or older relatives who are living longer in a state that doesn’t generate as much tax for social care), multiple jobs and changing priorities.

Some of these conclusions look similar to those from the ‘digital economy’ perspective. But in a declining population, maybe the threat from AI and automation taking jobs is less pronounced – there are fewer people around to do the jobs anyway. In this scenario the role of education is less about reskilling people for different jobs (as is often proposed), if jobs become a ‘buyer’s market’ then education shifts to a more social, individual role, as perhaps was original envisaged, rather than the current vocationally dominant narrative.

Anyway, I thought it was an interesting thing to muse while driving to the OU today. We often do scenario planning for an automated future, a globalised one, climate change affected one etc, but I don’t recall ever having done one for population decline.


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