Building an American caste system, part 2: the 9%

A few months ago I started writing about the possibility that American society could develop into a caste system, structured in part by education.  I began by describing the rural poor as one such caste.  Then… I got distracted by everything else I was researching and working on.

Let me get back on track now by describing another caste.  Call them the 9%.

Before I dive in, a quick recap.  I’m using “caste” to describe, first, the emergence of strongly defined socio-economic groups.  They harden as class mobility declines.  They didn’t start off as hereditary positions in the real sense of caste, but are increasingly headed that way.  So I’m using the term in a semi-metaphorical, semi-literal sense.

So, who are the 9%?  These people occupy the economic stratum right below the 1%, as in the 90-99%.  They are wealthy, but not the top tier financial elite.  They usually call themselves “affluent” or “upper middle class”, but are a lot more upper than they are middle.  They tend to be very highly educated professionals.  They include managers, but not Thomas Piketty’s “supermanagers“, and tend to live in cities and suburbs.

Richard Reeves offers a useful, quick introduction to this caste in his 2017 book Dream Hoarders.  His sense of the group is broader, more like the top 20% shy of the 1% (“the top fifth of society”, Kindle location 62).  For Reeves they are “upper middle-class professionals: journalists, scholars, technocrats, managers, bureaucrats, the people with letters after their names.” (Kindle location 85-86)

How does this group develop?  By “separating from the majority” or “detaching themselves” (122) through child-rearing, education, picking highly valued careers, and assortative mating, which leads to second and further generations remaining within this stratum.   Why “dream hoarding”?  Because this caste protects itself in many ways.  Its members move to affluent areas and tend to vote against policies that redistribute wealth to others.  They attend exclusive schools, from primary through post-secondary, and that exclusivity does what it says: excluding other people.  They have significant cultural and political power to define themselves:

the size and strength of the upper middle class means that it can reshape cities, dominate the education system, and transform the labor market. The upper middle class also has a huge influence on public discourse, counting among its members most journalists, think-tank scholars, TV editors, professors, and pundits in the land. (147-150).

And they learn all kinds of caste-protecting practices, such as “exclusionary zoning in residential areas; unfair mechanisms influencing college admissions, including legacy preferences; and the informal allocation of internships.” (210-212)  Reeves quotes Robert Putnam (whose Our Kids, about this very topic, we read in the book club) about an incipient caste or apartheid system (152).

The cover prefers 10% to 9.9%.

More recently Matthew Stewart offered another take on this population, narrowing it down to the top 9.9% of the economy short of the uppermost .01% (“In between the top 0.1 percent and the bottom 90 percent”).  Stewart’s account shares much with Reeves’.  The caste considers itself a meritocracy.  It has appropriate jobs: “a well-behaved, flannel-suited crowd of lawyers, doctors, dentists, mid-level investment bankers…”  They came from certain academic majors: “finance, management consulting, medicine, or law…”

Stewart’s 9.9% are very exclusionary. “We have left the 90 percent in the dust—and we’ve been quietly tossing down roadblocks behind us to make sure that they never catch up.”

We’re willing to strip everyone, including ourselves, of the universal right to a good education, adequate health care, adequate representation in the workplace, genuinely equal opportunities, because we think we can win the game.


 We are the staff that runs the machine that funnels resources from the 90 percent to the 0.1 percent. We’ve been happy to take our cut of the spoils.

Assortative mating plays a role, and Robert Putnam is name-checked again.

Education is very important in structuring Stewart’s caste.  Private schools, expensive college prep (don’t miss the “SAT whisperer” bit), and elite universities filter out the rest, allowing the 9.9%’s children to acquire meritocratic skills and suitable mates.

The plummeting admission rates of the very top schools nonetheless leave many of the children of the 9.9 percent facing long odds. But not to worry, junior 9.9 percenters! We’ve created a new range of elite colleges just for you. Thanks to ambitious university administrators and the ever-expanding rankings machine at U.S. News & World Report, 50 colleges are now as selective as Princeton was in 1980, when I applied. The colleges seem to think that piling up rejections makes them special. In fact, it just means that they have collectively opted to deploy their massive, tax-subsidized endowments to replicate privilege rather than fulfill their duty to produce an educated public.

There’s a flipside to this elite education and caste formation:

For those who made the mistake of being born to the wrong parents [i.e., in the bottom 90%], our society offers a kind of virtual education system. It has places that look like colleges—but aren’t really. It has debt—and that, unfortunately, is real. The people who enter into this class hologram do not collect a college premium; they wind up in something more like indentured servitude.

(Don’t miss the story of the nanny ad.)

For Stewart the new aristocracy has become multigenerational in ways that eluded previous generations. “The meritocratic class has mastered the old trick of consolidating wealth and passing privilege along at the expense of other people’s children”:

we have learned how to pass all of these advantages down to our children. In America today, the single best predictor of whether an individual will get married, stay married, pursue advanced education, live in a good neighborhood, have an extensive social network, and experience good health is the performance of his or her parents on those same metrics.

Stewart presses the analysis still further.  His 9.9% is becoming physically distinct from the rest, being healthier and longer-lived (pace Case and Deaton).  They benefit from what the author sees as cartelized professions: medicine (its upper strata), finance, and law.  They also benefit from a leaning-regressive tax system (although here it seems he’s talking more about the 1% than the 9) and from spatial separation through real estate.

I have several criticisms of both Stewart’s article and Reeves’ book.  I dislike Stewart’s too-broad smear of much of higher ed as “virtual.”  I agree with Jordan Weissman that Stewart’s 9.9% includes some seriously divergent populations.  Others have pointed out that both authors draw our attention too far from the 1%.  But for this post I’m not interested in that.  I’m focusing on how these accounts identify an emergent group in American society, and how it may be calcifying into a caste.

The combination of forces Stewart and Reeves identify, that builds on others’ work (notably Putnam), shows a group carefully defending its interests.  They use a mix of old and new elite strategies to drive themselves aloft to a position just short of the 1%, while riding about the rest.  Some of these strategies have now become multigenerational, and also politically bipartisan.

Education plays a major role in maintaining this group’s identity.  (I’ll call them the 9% partly for simplicity, and also to narrow things down a bit.)  Money buys housing which in turn buys the best public K-12 schools, or simply access to the best private ones. Money and the social capital of being a college graduate yields all kinds of college (admissions) prep services, from service learning to new technologies to tutors and foreign trips.  The path is then opened for selective higher education, including the right major, grad school and finding a proper mate.  Suitable career paths then let members of this group successfully reproduce themselves.

It’s possible the 9% won’t persist.  As a futurist, I want to look at all possibilities.  Like the lawyers among the French revolutionaries, some could successfully turn on their own by pushing for new policies.  Some 9%er jobs are square in the targets of new technologies (think of automated financial trading, or software eating chunks of the legal profession).  There are also wild cards, including the ones Walter Scheidel identifies as being most likely to end inequality: war, plague, natural disaster, and civilizational collapse.

At the same time, the 9% could avoid all of that and simply prosper.  Certain members will fight their way up into the 1%.  Some members of the dwindling middle class will claw their way in.  Otherwise, America may well have a new aristocracy.  How will we handle it?  And are educators comfortable playing their role in perpetuating it?


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American higher education enrollment declined. Again.

The total number of students enrolled in American higher education declined this spring, according to new data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

Here I’ll break down the results, then comment on their significance.

The total number of enrolled students is 17,839,330, a 1.3% drop from the 18,071,004 we taught in spring 2017.  That was, in turn, a 1.5% slip from spring 2016’s total of 18,343,655.

The NSCRC breaks this down by sector, as the decline varies by institutional type:

enrollments to 2018 spring

Enrollments decreased among four-year for-profit institutions (-6.8 percent), two-year public institutions (-2.0 percent), four-year private nonprofit institutions (-0.4 percent), and four-year public institutions (-0.2 percent).

Note that every sector experienced some level of decline.

Another vital way to slice the data is by age.  While one major trend of late has been the growth of nontraditional (i.e., adult) learners, this report shows that population actually declining much more steeply than the traditional-age one.  In NSCRC’s brackets, the 18 to 24 year old population declined 5.4% to 607,977, while the “Over 24” group dropped much further, by 13.3% to 147,020.

Geographical differences are another angle.  Inside Higher Ed offers a handy summary:

Enrollments went down in 34 states this spring…
The 10 states with the largest enrollment declines are: New York (45,608), Michigan (22,571), Florida (17,003), Minnesota (11,262), Missouri (9,962), Ohio (9,623), Pennsylvania (9,596), Colorado (9,049), West Virginia (8,755) and Oregon (7,255)…
Six of the 10 states with the largest declines are in the Midwest or Northeast…

We can also look at enrollment by major.  Here’s the report’s data, broken out by the center’s model of disciplinary clusters (and I’m just picking the biggest ones), listing total enrollment and change from spring 2017:

Business, Management, Marketing, and Related Support 1,575,286 -2.15
Health Professions and Related Programs 1,074,613 -1.8%
Liberal Arts and Sciences, General Studies and Humanities 1,058,766 1.6%
Biological and Biomedical Sciences 579,302 2.7%
Engineering 568,243 1.6%
Education 449,783 -1.4%
Social Sciences 437,201 -1.9%
Psychology 433,611 -0.7%
Computer and Information Sciences and Support Services 423,315 3.7%

So what can we learn from this?

That is the sixth full year of consistent enrollment declines.  Sit with that for a moment.  The total number of students has gone down – incrementally, yes, per semesters – but without pause for more than a half decade.

Compare: 17,839,330 took classes this spring, while in 2013 we enrolled 19,105,651 students.  That’s about a 6.7% decline.  And it comes after a generation of steady enrollment growth.

Consider how much planning American institutions have done, predicated on those decades of rising numbers.  Think of how many expectations and habits were instilled then, and which are now obsolete.

Recall how dependent American colleges and universities are on revenue from enrollment, especially as only a tiny number can rely on endowments, while the majority of public institutions (themselves a majority within higher ed) have seen state support drop steadily.  If schools enroll fewer students, they suffer a direct financial hit.

Back in 2013 I introduced the idea of peak higher education in the United States.  It was a thought experiment, and it seems to have been born out steadily.  I really didn’t want it to come true. I hate to say “I told you so,” but, well, it looks like I did.

The age angle is vital, and is a good caution for those of us who want higher ed to pay more attention to adult learners.  It looks like a “strengthening” labor market is leading some adults away from post-secondary education and back to work, especially for community colleges and for-profits.  (I put “strengthening” in quotes because while unemployment rates now stand as astonishingly low levels, around the lowest possible according to some economics thinking, I don’t want readers to forget wage stagnation, the shift of the economy from full time jobs to part time gigs, and the growing numbers of people who dropped completely out of the workforce.)

International students: I’m not sure to what extent this recent decline is due to the recent drop in foreign students (for example).  I’d like to see that data broken out.

Variability: please note that this is macro data, a very big picture indeed.  There is plenty of room for variation by region, state, type of institution, and individual campus.  For example, while New York schools lost more than 4%, Utah saw a 6.8% enrollment increase (what’s the story there?).

Last point: are we seeing a slow but steady movement away from the idea that college is for everyone?  Mike Rowe and others have been urging us to celebrate people who work in various trades without college degrees.  One example is this Republican candidate for Florida’s governorship, who openly attacks higher ed as elitist and liberals while praising those work with their hands.  “College is not the only path to success, and it’s okay to say it,” goes his ad:

(Although he wants more vocational training, so…) This decline in enrolled students occurs when the total American population has grown, too.

Now back to plugging it all into the book.

PS: If you want a quick introduction to American higher ed, this report offers a nice sketch.  For example, which sectors teach the most students?  According to NSCRC terminology and numbers, arranged from largest to smallest sector:
Four-Year, Publics: 7,664,873
Two-Year, Public 5,291,752
Four-Year, Private Nonprofit 3,686,972
Four-Year, For-Profit 925,532

Also, here’s which levels of post-secondary education teach the most students, again, in the report’s terms:
undergraduate 15,164,757
associate-seeking 4,955,226
graduate/professional 2,674,573

So public undergrad higher ed is the leader.  It’s the giant if you include 4- and 2-year institutions.

(via Inside Higher Ed)

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Discussing the book in progress with EdSurge

Last week EdSurge hosted me for a video discussion about the book I’m writing.

Jeff Young was a fine host, and also wrote up good notes.  There is also a video recording of our conversation:

A few aspects struck me.

First, I appreciated the audience questions, which hit topics I don’t normally address – here, parenting and andragogy.

Second, Jeff and the crowd were remarkably patient with my poor internet connectivity.  This time it wasn’t Vermont’s fault.  I was driving across upstate New York and had to scrounge for bandwidth, ending up with a combination of cell phone service (using Shindig‘s mobile app) and rest stop WiFi.

rest stop upstate NY

A quiet corner of a roadside Burger King.

Once again the limitations of American broadband became apparent.

Third, despite the bandwidth, this was a good example of the type 2 webinar I’ve described.  I could have paged through a slide stack detailing my work in progress.  It would have been easier on the network if I didn’t use video.  But this way people got a better sense of who I was and what I’m working on.  They got to see Jeff’s reactions.  I think it was a richer, more responsive experience than a Type 1 would have been.

Thanks to Jeff and EdSurge for hosting.


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When an ISP fails: the case of Consolidated Communications

How bad can rural broadband get?  If our experience over the past three days is exemplary, then the answer is: pretty bad.

Consolidated Communications

Consolidated Communications

Our home and business internet service provider (ISP) is Consolidated Communications (Wikipedia).  Some of you may recall that our previous ISP was the late and thoroughly unlamented Fairpoint, which Consolidated purchased about one year ago.  Given how awful Fairpoint had been, we had some hopes for Consolidated.  They were met for a while.  Support was faster and better.  Service had fewer downtimes.  Now, Consolidated didn’t increase our speeds, but better service and support was still progress.

Unfortunately, since January Consolidated’s service has declined.  We saw it in small ways at first, with more frequent router power cycles, and less friendly support staff.  Then several outages occurred, including phone service (which Consolidated also supplies), and Consolidated responded with a mix of competence and confusion (i.e., sending technicians to our house after things were fixed, losing track of our account information).

This weekend it all went south, and badly.

(For context, we live in a small town in rural Vermont.  We pay for the maximum speeds Consolidated can deliver, which are not good: about 6-7 mpbs download, 0.7 upload.  On this frail reed rests our family’s communications, plus our business operations.  That’s two accounts, home and business.  There are no other ISPs available, beyond dish antennae and a local ISP which can’t get us the above speeds. Meanwhile, cell phone coverage in our town is either generally (Verizon) or totally (ATT) nonexistent.)

On Friday night our internet connection started stalling out, then stopped completely.  This was 7 pm EST.  I power cycled the router, waited the requisite time, then tested the connection through multiple devices (Android phone, Mac laptop, PC laptop) and connections (WiFi and direct ethernet cabling to the router).  Nothing.

I quickly called the Consolidated Communications tech support line, then worked with a representative for almost half an hour.  We power cycled again, checked the router physically, analyzed the network – no dice.  We couldn’t determine the problem, nor select a solution. We decided that the problem wasn’t in my house, but somewhere in the Consolidated Communications network.  The rep assured me they were on the case.  I accepted this.

The next morning (Saturday) internet access was still absent. We called the Consolidated Communications tech support line again.  This time a rep told me they still didn’t know the cause.  They also couldn’t help us until Monday, two days hence.  I carefully explained that not only will a family suffer from being offline, but a business is likely to take financial and reputational hits from being incommunicado. The rep explained that while that was sad, they had no staff in the area on weekends.  I pointed out that technology problems didn’t respect business hours.  In response to that comment and our general situation the rep wasn’t very sympathetic.  He insisted we sit tight and wait ’til Monday, when they would start work (i.e., not guaranteeing a solution then).

So we did what we normally do when confronted with natural and technological disasters: drove to the other end of town to the town Fire Department, there to quickly get a very slow but still real internet connection.

Owain at the Fire Department

Our son Owain, using his laptop in the fire startion’s meeting/training/prep room.

We then drove two towns away to get a somewhat better connection.  From there we did two things: desperately tried to catch up on missed business, and investigated what was going wrong with Consolidated Communications.

For the latter, we reached out for help across every channel we had.  I emailed the company from their official site.  I pinged their site’s chat agent (see below).  I targeted their accounts on Twitter and Facebook. Well, to be precise, I vented, complained, updated people, and sought help. I tracked down Bob Udell, Consolidated’s CEO, on LinkedIn, and asked him for assistance.  I posted a question on the Vermont Reddit Board and emailed a similar question to FrontPorchForum (a hyperlocal email list).  I emailed our state representative.

Responses gradually trickled in.  The supermajority of Vermonters reported to Reddit and via email that yes, Consolidated Communications seemed stuck in the bad Fairpoint service mode.  Maybe they bit off more than they could chew, or simply hadn’t made necessary changes.

Eventually, just after midnight, Friday night (12:34 am Saturday), the official Consolidated Communications account responded on Twitter:

I was gratified by this response, and immediately instant messaged them.  Then I waited.  And waited.  And still haven’t gotten a reply, nearly two days later.  Here’s my chat record, with posts in reverse chronological order:

Twitter_Consolidated chat

On Facebook was a nearly identical story: a quick note from Consolidated Communications expressing support, then silence after my responses.

Saturday afternoon and the internet was still dead.  My son and I journeyed to other towns for connection (know that it’s 30 minutes to get out of our town, at a minimum, each way).  Ceredwyn remained home to paint the bathroom (remember, we’re trying to sell the house!).  Consolidated Communications called and told her good news: the problem was fixed, and service was able to return!  She waited a few minutes, then tested the connection.  Still dead.  She waited more time, longer than the rep had told her to wait: still nothing.  She called me with the update.

Frustrated, I reached out to a chat support line on the Consolidated Communications website.  An agent responded, telling me the trouble ticket had been closed (!), since the problem was fixed.

I explained that this wasn’t the case, and we still desperately needed help.  The rep couldn’t do anything, referring me instead to their phone line.  I called again (the number is now thoroughly embedded in muscle memory) and a cheerless representative told me I couldn’t know the service was out, because I wasn’t home, and my wife’s report didn’t count.  Meanwhile, the online chat rep stopped replying to me, like so:

Visitor [me]: They won’t reopen the ticket unless we call from the location.

Visitor: Which is a problem, since I’m 45 minutes away.

Visitor: You can’t open the ticket yourself?

Visitor: Hello?

Visitor: Joseph, this isn’t helping.

Visitor: I’m not sure if you’re still here. You don’t seem to be answering.

Furious, I drove home with my son.  We confirmed the internet was still out.  I called the Consolidated help line to get them to reopen the ticket, which they did.  This new representative told me nothing would be done until Monday, two days off.  My reactions prompted him to bring in a supervisor.  The supervisor confirmed everything: they had no idea what the problem was; they couldn’t give me a timeline for its resolution; they possessed no resources in our area on weekends.  I, my family, and the business were going to be offline until Monday.  And we were supposedly receiving escalated attention.

Saturday night we continued our 1980s-style commute to compute, then drove home for sleep.

Sunday morning: still no internet.  Sunday afternoon: no change.  No response from Consolidated through social media, LinkedIn, or email.  More anti-Consolidated comments did arrive from people on Reddit and through email.

In about 75 minutes from now we’ll start our third day offline.  We’ve spent hours of time wrestling with this, and hours more in driving around the county hunting 21st century connectivity.  Our son hates rural Vermont more than ever (being offline for him isn’t quaint or an opportunity to reconnect with offline life).  My work emails have piled up and my online research has fallen behind.  I’ve missed two video calls (which I can barely do from home anyway, thanks to slow speeds).

We have no idea what the problem is, or how and when it’ll be address.  Looking ahead, if this outage is something that can afflict Consolidated Service at any point and take our service offline, how often will the problem return in the future?  Consolidated’s responses over the past few days suggest that this isn’t a priority for them to solve, so perhaps we should prepare for frequent outages in increasing number.

So, stepping back, why am I writing this today?

First, as documentation.  I think this experience is a useful one for considering the digital divide in 2018.  It shows how poor rural access remains.  It seems that the business case for providing decent (not great, just basic) service to the countryside is too weak for businesses.  Hence, in this case, a major ISP simply not paying for staff on weekends.

Second, I am desperately reaching out for help.  Maybe someone at Consolidated Communications will see this and try to solve the problem, either directly (getting us back online) or strategically (by diverting resources to our area).  Right now this combination of service and customer relations is awful.

Third, I’m struck by the retro nature of this experience.  I remember as a teenager in the 1980s having no networked computing at home, and having to drive to a school or lab to get online.  Commute to compute.

(On a related Vermont note, here’s the internet connection speed Burlington’s airport offered me Wednesday afternoon:

BTV slow internet

Maybe there’s a deep drive in Vermont to keep things at 1980s levels.  Or we just aren’t taking subsequent technological evolution seriously)

Meanwhile, my family and business remain offline.  Can anyone help us, please?

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Cuts, more cuts, a school’s closure, and another closure

I’ve been traveling for the past week (Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania), so blogging’s been lighter than I would have liked.  Let me catch up a little with this post on a sadly dark theme.

That theme is American campuses wielding axes upon their academic departments.

The organization of this post is in terms of increasing severity.

ax caneITEM: the University of Vermont is laying off adjuncts in the humanities.  The reason?  A new budgeting system based on individual programs’ enrollment.

“incentive-based budgeting” [has] been a boon for growing programs such as business, health sciences, computing and engineering, but not so great for English literature, history and foreign languages. Increasingly, the humanities are losing in the Hunger Games of higher education.

So while total enrollment at UVM has not changed, enrolled students are shifting the classes and majors they take away from the humanities and towards STEM.  “Enrollment is shifting but stable overall”.

The results?  “[D]etractors contend that the model has led to cuts in courses, lecturers and tenured faculty slots”.  More:

Despite a $2 million infusion from the central university coffers, the university plans to “pink-slip” some nontenure-track faculty. Four full-time positions are being cut July 1 in Asian languages and literature; art and art history; classics; and English. Part-time reductions are planned in Romance languages and linguistics, as well as theater.

In total, 11 positions will be cut — the equivalent of five full-time jobs. As many as 14 additional nontenure, full-time equivalent positions will be eliminated over the next five years, according to a February memo from College of Arts and Sciences dean Bill Falls to faculty and staff.

Two trends to pull out here: the declining popularity in the humanities, and the rise of enrollment-based management (which connects to academic program prioritization).  Unless faculty resistance (noted in article) succeeds in blocking this management strategy, and unless student preferences change, how far will these trends reshape Vermont’s flagship public university?

ITEM: the University of Missouri is cutting a series of graduate departments.  In the plans:

Several programs will combine, a new College of Interdisciplinary and Graduate Studies will work to increase graduate enrollment…  In some instances, while the name will go away, a new combined program will emerge. In the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources, masters’ and doctoral programs in rural sociology, agricultural education and agricultural economics will be combined and a single program at each level will be created.

According to Inside Higher Ed, “[t]he programs that will be discontinued entirely are a master’s program in religious studies, the master’s and Ph.D. programs in nuclear engineering, and the nuclear safeguards science and technology graduate certificate.”

There’s a political element to this, as Missouri was the site for controversial and widely covered protests two years ago:

Budget cuts have dominated discussions of spending at MU since the beginning of 2016, when the enrollment crash following the November 2015 campus protests became apparent and then-interim Chancellor Hank Foley ordered 8 percent budget cuts.

Although this might be ending, as “Freshman enrollment is expected to rebound by 500 or more new students in the fall and the budget passed by lawmakers imposes no new cuts.”

I’m struck by the interdisciplinary range of programs to be cut, including the humanities as well as the hard sciences.

ITEM: MissionU will cease offering postsecondary education.  Instead it’s being folded up within WeWork, either to help with its K-12 operations or its coworking services.  No more students will be accepted, despite the offer on the website’s front page.  No word on the fate of staff, other than its founder, Adam Braun, who will take a position within WeWork.

Almost one year ago to this day we hosted MissionU’s founder on the Future Trends Forum:

Some details of this story are hard to discern, but I can offer a few quick thoughts about what it might mean.  First, it’s possible that the WeWork offer was just too tempting to resist, especially if MissionU’s initial enrollment wasn’t looking good.  Second, businesses may not have been interested enough in a one-year undergrad program to support it.  Third, the buy-out may not have been about MissionU at all:

Fourth, notice the language in Braun’s announcement: “WeWork [i]s the company that we believe is building the world’s greatest community of students for life. We’ll be collaboratively integrating our curriculum and technology to reach the full spectrum of ages and interests going forward.”  In other words, Braun is shifting away from traditional-age undergrads to cover all ages in learning.  Again, we don’t have a lot of data, but can infer that this connects with larger trends in enrollment and demographics.

Fifth, as an example of yet another higher ed startup’s failure, this indicates something about that field.  It might be that the field is in rapid churn, that projects have been ill-designed for postsecondary realities, or that higher ed is just much harder to do than some people thought.

ITEM: Marylhurst University will close up shop this fall.  The current class of students will be taught through the fall, then those who don’t graduate will be directed to transfers.  I can’t find details about faculty and staff, but assume they are all hitting the market.  As one put it on Twitter,

What happened?  My readers know to look for enrollment data: “Marylhurst’s enrollment is little more than a third of its recent peak of 1,971 in the 2010-2011 academic year.”  You also know to look hard at the financials: “Marylhurst’s tax returns show that revenues plunged from $21.5 million in 2014 to $15.5 million in 2016 and over the past two years, the university posted combined operating losses of $6 million.”

What does this mean?

On the one hand, we could see in it signs of larger forces acting throughout higher education.  For example, as one official statement put it,

“Like many small, private, liberal arts colleges and universities, we have seen a steady decline in enrollment since the end of the Great Recession,” Marylhurst President Melody Rose wrote…

It is also very small: “a current enrollment of about 750 students evenly split between graduate and undergraduates.”  That connects with arguments about scale – i.e., that the American small college is no longer sustainable in the 21st century.  Inside Higher Ed makes one connection:

Marylhurst shares some things in common with the growing number of small private colleges that have closed or merged in the last year, including shrinking enrollments and a modest endowment ($20.5 million in 2016).

The trustees’ resolution sees their institution as being hit by several other national trends, including religious status and geographu:

WHEREAS many smaller Catholic institutions have seen challenges in attracting students, and students increasingly prefer urban campuses over those in suburban locations or without comprehensive public transit options…

I also note this interestingly future-oriented language from the web announcement:

Unlike other university closures, which have frequently followed a loss of accreditation, mounting debt, recalled loans or bad audits, we are fortunate to have monitored our situation closely so we could make this decision before encountering any of those problems.

How many other institutions’ leadership bodies are looking ahead along these lines?

On the other hand, Marylhurst is an unusual case, as Tim Burke and Audrey Watters note on Twitter.  It is private, religious, and in the liberal arts tradition, yet “Marylhurst specializes helping adult students complete their undergraduate education or get an advanced degree.  The mean age of its undergraduate students is 34.”   Inside Higher Ed reports that “two-thirds of its enrollees attend part time.”

Inside Higher Ed also observes that its geography is unusual:

it isn’t in the Midwest or the Northeast, which are struggling most with declining populations, especially of traditional-age young people. And while Oregon as a whole also faces a declining college-age population, that is most true in the state’s rural regions, whereas Marylhurst sits 10 miles outside Portland, which is booming.

In fact, Marylhurst strikes me as more like a community college in terms of its mission, student population, and response to macroeconomic trends:

Because many of its students are of working age, Marylhurst fortunes have tended to run counter to the economy; i.e. when unemployment is high, people go back to school to complete degrees and get advanced degrees, but when the economy is strong, as it is now, they work full-time.

How many American colleges and universities now have this kind of profile?

All right, that’s enough for one post.  What do these stories tell us about higher ed in 2018?  What signals are they sending about the future of colleges and universities?

(thanks to Scott Robison on Twitter)

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Thoughts on the practice of interviewing: the one on one interview

How can we create the best interviews?

For years I’ve been interviewing people in various ways.  That means interviews over Skype, phone, email, and in person for various research projects.  It means the 100+ live video interviews I’ve done with the Future Trends Forum.  It also means panels that I’ve moderated, which function like interviews in some ways.

I’ve also been interviewed myself, in all of these ways.  And I watch/listen to/read interviews as a consumer.

So what have I found that works?

I’ll start with the one on one experience, then add the social context in a followup post.


Philosophically, I believe interviews are about the subject, not the interviewer.  Much as I enjoy reading the kind of discussion one sees in French intellectual interviews, where both participants have roughly equal time, I consider that a different experience.  Call it a discussion, or a mini panel.  In contrast, I think it’s best for an interviewer to remove themselves as much as possible from the exchange.

Think of it this way.  The interview opens a space for conversation.  That’s not automatically an easy thing to do, especially in a culturally fraught moment like we’re enjoying in 2018.  The interview also provides a space for a person – the interviewee, or the subject – to express themselves, to unfold their thinking, to explore questions and topics.  Again, that isn’t easy.  The interviewer has a fierce responsibility to ensure that the space works, that the interviewee can productively and safely inhabit that site.  Ultimately, I think, hosting an interview requires embracing an ethos of care.

Practical preparation: this might sound obvious, but do research the person you’re going to talk with.  I’m still surprised by interviews where the interviewer clearly hasn’t read what an author has written, or pays no attention to their current thinking.  Being able to interview someone is a privileged position, an unusual window into another human being.  Take that seriously.  Take them seriously.  Research them!

Generate a raft of questions ahead of time.  Make sure they cover a range of topics and approaches, not just a narrow suite of probes.  That way you’re ready to change up if one angle doesn’t pan out.  You can also elicit the subject’s thoughts from different perspectives and on multiple facets of the topic.  Personally, I tend to overprepare, and thereby often end up with twice or three times the questions I actually get in.  (ENTJ here.)   That’s ok.  Generating them is good practice, and the results give me a lot of flexibility in the interview.   I also like giving subjects some of the questions beforehand, so they can think on them.  Not all – that can be daunting.

Keep the questions somewhere easily accessible.  It can be paper, a tablet, wherever.  Recently I’ve been using Mac laptops and desktops, and that platform’s Notes application suits me just fine.

Structure an agenda.  The details of this depend on one’s personality and style.  If you’re just starting to interview people, you’ll probably discover you have an interviewing persona which emerges through practice, much like instructors develop a teaching persona.  For myself, if I’m doing a live and/or recorded event, I like to prepare a pretty detailed timeline, down to 5- or even 3-minute increments (remember, ENTJ)… but then I feel comfortable departing from that timeline, as the conversation flows.  That structure gives me a good sense of how to organize and shift topics.  Sharing it (or an abstract) with the subject gives them a better feel for how things will proceed.

2. During

During the interview: right at the start, empty yourself.  I know that might sound weirdly Zen or Newage, but I mean it.  Remove as many of your desires to pontificate as you can.  This is all about the other person.  Meditate or deep breathe if you have to.  Remember, your questions and notes are safely available elsewhere.  You can refer to them easily.

Jeff Young and Bryan

Jeff Young, being awesome.

At the same time, do everything you can to make the subject comfortable.  Being interviewed isn’t necessarily a welcome or comfortable feeling; there’s a reason police use the term “to interview” when meeting with suspects.  And some people are just uncomfortable, awkward, or simply bad at talking.  Make them comfortable.  The interview is about them.  The better and more confident they feel, the better the results will be.

A crucial way of doing that is using your body.  If the interview is visible (on stage, on video) there are long stretches them you cannot speak, because the subject is talking.  Then use body language to respond.  I mean facial expressions, gestures with your hands, your body’s posture.  Change them up to indicate surprise, humor, and above all attention.  Use nonverbal sounds: grunts, “mm hm”s, chuckles, breath intakes.  Smile (this is important for me, as my facial hair can intimidate the sad segment of the population that doesn’t appreciate hirsute achievement.) Sit up, shift your frame to one side, lean forward, lean back, etc.  This is quiet and subtle stuff, but can make a huge different to your subject, making them feel heard.  It can also convey to the audience that this is a meaningful event to you.  I shudder to think of bad interviews wherein the interviewer clearly signaled their inattention, either through lack of response or perfunctory reactions.

Use the interview space.  If the subject has a venue (you’re in their office, or Skyping into their home, or they’re traveling) see if you can reference it.  Perhaps their weather is exceptional, or there’s a revealing bit of art, or they have a challenging technology setup.  This can make them feel more comfortable and/or present.  It also fleshes out the person, giving them a greater presence for your audience.  If your own space is available (it’s in your office, etc.), use that.  Make informal, light comparisons.

Manage the tempo.  Much like public speaking, many people will have the temptation to go too quickly when interviewing.  I’ve seen interviewers press too hard on people, not giving them time to think or express themselves.  Be patient.  The questions and topics you’ve been thinking of might not be in the subject’s mind at that second.  They are also experts (which is why you’re interviewing them, right?), and are accessing a wealth of knowledge.  Give that time to process.  I find one weird trick is to let the subject finish a complete sentence before I ask the next question.  If what they’re saying is sentence fragment, they probably have another thought right there, just about to surface.

The flip side of managing tempo is being careful not to let the energy drain away.  Think of your audience, and try not to narcotize them.  The interview situation is inherently dramatic, but it can drift into silence if the subject is bored/very thoughtful and quiet/not happy with your questions.  So if the subject is a high energy person, keep up with them.  Make sure you have your other questions and topics in mind, so you can quickly jump to them.  And keep an eye on the clock.  If you have a schedule limitation, stick to it, and be sure to get your most pressing topics in before the clock runs out.

Right at the start take care to introduce things well.  Present yourself to the interviewee, reminding them of some generalities (timeline, topic, audience).  If it’s being recorded or conducted live, introduce the person you’ll be speaking with and the topic.  It sounds obvious, but this framing fulfills a formal function many people expect.  And it helps people situate themselves.

Active listening: I’m ambivalent about the practice, as it sometimes strikes me as condescending or overkill.  But some active listening elements are very useful for interviewing.  My favorite bit is paraphrasing what a subject has said.  Sometimes I do this immediately after they’re spoken, to indicate my appreciation for an important statement, or to clarify (not all subjects are effective communicators).  Always I circle back in the interview to link up different thoughts, pushing for comparison and synthesis.  For me an interview isn’t entirely linear, but rather a kind of matrix, with opportunities to connect all parts.

At the end, be sure to close things out formally.  You might want to recap some highlights, such as the points you think were most salient or surprising.  Definitely thank your interviewee.  If it’s live or recorded, speak to the interview’s fate (“this will be available on our streaming server as a podcast”).  If it’s part of a series, inform the audience about what’s coming next.

3. Afterwards

After the session: celebrate it!  I’m a serious social media user, so I always tweet out quick reflections – and thanks – right afterwards.  Contact your subject to thank them for their time and contributions to your work.

Depending on what happens to documentation, be sure to share it with the interviewee and other audiences when ready.  That is, if it’s for a book, thank the subject when it hits press or market.  If it’s on iTunes, share the link.

…and that’s it for now.  What do you think?  What makes an interview work for you as interviewer, interviewee, or audience member?

Posted in Future Trends Forum | 4 Comments

Which university or college will be the first to reach $100,000 per year?

When will an American college or university cost $100,000 per year to attend?

I’d like to put this potential milestone out there as a provocative future, as well as a possible forecast.

Let me explain.

It’s well known that the published price of going to American colleges and universities has been rising dramatically and steadily for the past several decades.  We can explore the various reasons in comments (consider: declining state per-student support; rising medical costs for campus staff; the amenities arms race; the discount rate strategy; rising numbers of students and Baumol’s cost disease, for starters), but for now I’d like to focus on extrapolating this curve ahead a few years, using the $100K number as a marker.

100000 by adders

Two technical notes: by “cost” I’m referring to total cost.  That means not just tuition (often the largest amount paid), but tuition plus room and board plus fees.  I’m not including the opportunity cost of taking classes instead of working.

I’m also referring to the sticker price, which many students don’t actually pay.  You see, in American higher education we often publish a price, then take parts of it away for some students through grants, scholarships, and other mechanisms, depending on need, merit, and other reasons.  The difference between what a college publishes as their prices, versus what the typical student actually pays, is called the discount rate.  Right now discount rates have soared, reaching 50% for many private institutions. (Here are some of my posts on the topic.)

So how long would it take for a campus to reach that $100,000 milestone?  Let’s pick some of the most expensive institutions in the United States, like Harvey Mudd, Columbia, University of Chicago, or Sarah Lawrence.  They are best positioned to crack that number.  Depending on which webpage one reads, their total cost is, as of this writing, somewhere in the $60,000s.

So I’ll start my experiment with $65,000 as an approximation of Most Expensive University.  I will assume an annual price increase of 4% (above general inflation, which stands around 2%, but in line with many history tuition and fees increases).

In eleven years Most Expensive U hits $100,064 and change.  That’s the academic year 2029-2030.  I’d consider that to be neither the short- nor long-term, but in the medium term.

Could this happen?  Perhaps not. Extrapolations can be useful, but also flawed.  It’s possible that general resentment of escalating higher ed costs will not only continue but grow, leading institutions to take even stronger measures to control costs.  State governments could rediscover their 1960s mission and start supporting public universities once more, which might drive the privates to cut costs as well.  A post-Trump cultural turn could acculturate still lower compensation for college faculty and staff.

And yet the drivers behind our current price growth spurt are strong.  We have cut a lot of costs already – note the transformation of the professoriate into a majority of adjuncts, for example.  Some costs are much harder to trim, such as total compensation for the rump of tenured faculty, and paying staff for the multiplying needs we see higher ed having to fulfill through regulation, competition, or human decency.  And inflation is a powerful thing.  At an annual increase of just 2% it would take MEU 20 years to crack $100K – longer than if it were 4%, but not in the distance future.

What would be the impact of MEU’s reaching the $100,000 milestone?  We could just ignore it as a meaningless number, one of many, and one that doesn’t tell us anything new.  It could also rock our world, shocking us with the turnover to six digits, driving desperate responses.

One more thought: I’m wondering when individuals and families paying full sticker price will become unhappy at paying for non-elite students to attend the same institutions.  When will they demand institutional or policy changes?

$100,000 per year: a marker for the medium term future.  Who do you think will hit it first, if anyone does, and when?

99,999 by Alan Levine

(photos by Adam Tinworth and Alan Levine)

Posted in future of education | 11 Comments

When the mobile revolution and the digital divide combine

How does the ongoing mobile revolution intersect with the persistent digital divide?

A new Pew study* updates us on how Americans are using mobile devices in 2018, and it tells us a great deal.

Pew Research Center logoHere’s one key finding.  20% of Americans are smartphone-only at home.  That means they don’t have broadband access through DSL, fiber, WiFi, satellite, etc.  At home they get online solely through mobile phones.

Who are these people, these advanced cord-cutters?  The report explains that they

are disproportionately less likely to have attended college compared with those with traditional broadband service. They also report living in lower-income households… This phenomenon is also notably more prevalent among blacks and Hispanics than among whites.

So: poorer people, less well educated folks, and racial minorities.   Being smartphone-only at home seems to be a reliable indicator of coming from the wrong side of America’s tracks.

Now this is where the digital divide appears.  The population that’s smartphone-only (setting aside access via work, school, community centers, businesses) fits most (but not all; keep reading) of the digital divide’s low side, as I and others have explained.  Consider the smartphone-only experience, with bandwidth caps and often lower speeds.

In contrast, we can complete the picture with the divide’s upside:

[R]elatively well-educated and financially well-off Americans are substantially more likely to say they do have a traditional broadband connection at home. Nearly nine-in-ten Americans in households earning $75,000 or more per year say they subscribe to home broadband service, nearly double the rate among those earning less than $30,000 per year (45% of whom have broadband service at home).

Having home broadband based in something other than 4G networks is now a sign of coming from the right side of the tracks.

The Pew report offers a second finding, reminding us of a persistent and invisible population: those with neither smartphone nor home broadband.  They remain basically offline: “it is also notable that 15% of Americans indicate that they have neither broadband service at home nor a smartphone. A large share of this group is not online at all: 11% of Americans indicate that they do not use the internet or email from any location.”  From any location.

We could rephrase this as “11% of us aren’t in the 21st century.”  Or more directly say that one ninth of America isn’t using the internet in 2018.  And who are these people?

those who lack both broadband service and a smartphone are disproportionately likely to be from certain segments of the population. Most notably, 40% of Americans ages 65 and older fall into this category. But this is also true for substantial minorities of rural residents (25%), those who have not attended college (25%) and those from households earning less than $30,000 per year (23%).

That’s nearly one half of American seniors.  Think about that. (Need I remind you that the majority of senior voters voted for Trump?)

That’s one quarter of the rural population.  One quarter of those without any post-secondary experience.  Almost one quarter of those in poverty.  This is the digital divide’s deep end, the extreme of the low side.

What do these findings tell us about the future?  I’d hazard a guess that both patterns (smartphone-only, nothing-only) will persist for a while, given supporting forces.  Income inequality is deepening.  Racism against blacks and hispanics isn’t exactly going away.  Moreover, these patterns might be self-sustaining.  People who live offline in 2018 might feel that they’re doing fine without Snapchat, and are confident in remaining so.  Or they might be so embarrassed that making the jump looks increasingly terrifying.

Now, the rural and senior dimensions are gradually changing.  America, like most of the world, is shuffling its population from the countryside and into cities and suburbs, so the rural population is dwindling.  Some seniors are still learning to get online, and middle aged people are aging into being seniors.  Possibly those drivers will dwindle in strength, and a larger proportion of people get online.

These changes are gradual, steady but slow.  Let’s say we have a decade of this to run, maybe more.  In the meantime, we’ll see a segment of America remaining offline, separated out from the world of cat videos and Cambridge Analytica.  That’s a deep and thorough divide, which we’ll need to understand and attend to.  We’ll see another segment primarily online through their phones, inhabiting a world of apps rather than desktops.  That’s another divide we should track and respond to.

For educators, the implications are obvious, and have been so for a long while.  If we’re serious about supporting black, poor, and/or hispanic students, we need to do a better job of making academia accessible through mobile devices.  We need to keep supporting other digital access sites, from labs to laptops available from vending machines, to both academic and public libraries (and remember that public libraries are epic, unsung heroes in supporting public access to the digital world).  We have to think about how we support – or how we just reach – that 11+% who aren’t online at all.

There is an opportunity here for the United States to mitigate these divides.  As a nation we could take steps to expand internet access.  As educators we can both change what we do in our institutions and also exert ourselves as citizens.  Unfortunately I don’t see great odds for the former.

As for the latter, American education is very centralized and our schools not very good at collective action.  It can be a simple matter to decide that your campus is doing what it can, and to expect everyone else to do their share.  And some institutions are doing a great job, ranging from supporting extensive infrastructure (one reason for “administrative bloat,” by the way) to nudging more content and services into mobile-friendly forms.

In the meantime, perhaps academics should ask again our old questions: whom do we serve, and how?

(Do read the other half of that report, about shifting attitudes.  Different topic, really.)

*When a new Pew study appears I’m amazed the blogosphere doesn’t fire up and Twitter doesn’t melt down.  Pew has done such important work for years on how people use technology.  It’s useful, essential stuff.  Call me a fan if you like, but I’ve long relied on Pew research.

Posted in technology | Tagged | 5 Comments

Unschooling and revolutions: finishing Walkaway

Walkaway coverWith this post we conclude our online book club‘s reading of Cory Doctorow’s science fiction novel Walkaway.

(For the reading schedule, click here.  For all posts on this reading, click here.  For more information on our book club, click over here.)

In this post I’ll begin with a quick plot summary (which contains spoilers) of chapters 5 (“Transitional Phase”), 6 (“The Next Days of a Better Nation”), 7 (“Prisoner’s Dilemma”), and the epilogue (“Even Better Nation”), followed by some reflections and discussion questions.

But first, what have online readers thought since last time?

The book club reads

Two readers responded to last week’s reading post with comments.  Vanessa Vaile shared her personal connection to the novel’s rebel culture:

I too am finding walkaway culture very appealing — in some ways as though I have been participating in it for years unawares. Recommending to local community organizers/development types. If that only confirms their worst suspicions about me ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Scott Butki offered related applause from a different angle:

I really like this idea of a walkaway culture. Sometimes in sci fi it’s just too fantastical, i just can’t see the future turning out this way
But this, the concept that activists will get off the grid, step away from the regular world (default) and create their own cultures I can totally see that happening. And as with the social justice groups I work with that all have different styles and strategies that sometimes overlap and sometimes conflict. I can totally see walkaway culture varying greatly from group to group.

On Twitter, Liz Stevenson expressed ambivalence:

Beyond book club readers, you can find more reflections and commentary on the web.  Here’s Doctorow urging us to rethink technology for social and political liberation. I’d also like to add this video discussion about Walkaway between Doctorow and Edward Snowden (!).

The plot so far
Iceweasel escapes from her family.  Several more characters get uploaded, their minds copied into digital form.

We then race ahead decades.  Characters have aged, gotten married, had children. The previous chapters now are understood to have taken place around the time of “World War Default and the Walkaway Decade” (“which was a dumb name everyone hated, but at least it had a built-in expiry date”). ( 7355). Meanwhile, the walkaway revolution grows and the default world, decaying, reacts violently.  A climax occurs in and around a prison, with jailed characters, family members, troops, and uploads converging.

The epilogue takes place even further in the future.  People (walkaways?) have figured out how to grow human bodies, into which they can download uploaded minds.  There are rebirths and reunions.


Education continues as a theme.  We learn, for example, that today’s testing obsession helped drive walkaway culture:

There were always parents who found the risk of taking their kids out of default was less than the risk of leaving them in. The ‘accountability’ stuff in schools accelerated it—once they started paying teachers based on test scores, parents saw their kids getting crammed relentlessly by the system, no room for helping them with their problems or passions. (7401)

There is also a picture of an antiauthoritarian school, which arises in the ruins of a Flint-like poisoned-water city:

“Kids did the school.”

“Cool.” Tam enjoyed the girl’s obvious pride. “You go to classes in there?”

The girl grinned. “Don’t believe in ’em. We do peer workshops. I’m a calculus freak of nature, got a group of freaklings I’m turning into my botnet.”

Tam nodded. “Never got calculus. That lady over there with the little boy under each arm is a hero of mathematics.”  (7760)

(That should please fans of one of our other readings)

The walkaway revolution proceeds through certain developments. Suburbs of a sort emerge as barriers or interzones between walkaway and default cultures (7044).  And default collapse breeds new walkaways:

The jails had ruptured. Ruptured was the word they were using for government institutions that fell apart, turned into walkaway-style co-ops that gave away office supplies and opened up the databases for anyone who wanted a crack. She’d heard of ruptured hospitals, police departments, public housing—but jails were a new one. A big one. (7480)

Technologies: some haven’t advanced so much as gotten easier to use, and used more quickly.  For example,

The feeds zoomed in on one of the front-liners, a man, whose shoulders shook. This had to be Gordy. The crowd had identified him through gait analysis, doxxed him, walked his social graph, found a hit in a walkaway town in Wyoming, gotten Tracey out of bed, recorded the message. (8319)

In terms of references and politics, the book’s anarchist comes out more openly with passages like this:

She read books, walkaway classics, Bakunin and Illich and Luxemburg, old dead anarchists. She’d read Homage to Catalonia and felt she finally understood Orwell—the seeds of Nineteen Eighty-Four were in the betrayals and the manipulation. (6927).

But don’t miss the following lines.


  1. What do you think of the walkaway criticism of “snowflakes”?
  2. What do you make of the plot concerning two mercenaries captured and forcibly uploaded by Walkaway U?
  3. How do you think the walkaway revolution turned out?
  4. Do you see walkaway education as working in our reality?

And that concludes our reading!  Many thanks to our thoughtful readers for their contributions.

Next Wednesday, May 16th, author Cory Doctorow will join the Future Trends Forum to discuss the novel, our reading, and the future of education.  Please join us.

If you’d like to look back at previous posts about this reading, they’re all right here.

Posted in book club | Tagged , | 12 Comments

When futuring flops: the case of The Fourth Turning

It’s important for futurists to examine flawed futuring work and learn from it.  I’ve said this before, reflecting on my own forecasting misfires.  I haven’t offered many criticisms of others’ work, largely for reasons of time.  I’d like to start doing some more of this.

Why?  There are all kinds of benefits to this kind of analysis.  One involves testing the limits of a given method (Delphi, trends extrapolation, etc.) by seeing what it misses… which then suggests how one can either modify the method or choose to use it in addition to another approach.

A second benefit concerns blind spots.  For example, in his criminally underrated work on global inequality (cf my notes) Branko Milanovic notes that 1970s futures work focused so heavily on the Cold War’s primary antagonists – the USA and USSR – that they utterly failed to not only predict, but even pay much attention to nations that sidestepped the conflict’s core: Yugoslavia, for example, and most especially China.  This is an understandable mistake, given the huge dimensions of the US-Soviet struggle, not to mention the stakes (possible human extinction), but it was a mistake.  Seeing it now drives us to look for our own blind spots.

A third reason to prod older futures work is to understand how the broader public perceives futuring.  Which projects win followings tells us something about present attitudes.

Today’s example is a popular and influential book, The Fourth Turning (1997; official site), by the gurus of generational thinking, William Strauss and Neil Howe.   It claims to have discovered a deep and sustained structure to American history, one which will continue to function in the future.  Understanding this code will therefore help prepare us for upcoming changes.

The code involves a multi-step sequence, each of which lasts about eighty to one hundred years, a period the authors refer to as a “saeculum”.  Within each saeculum are four phases, or “turnings“:

  1. High: “an upbeat era of strengthening institutions and weakening individualism, when a new civic order implants and the old values regime decays.”
  2. Awakening: “a passionate are of spiritual upheaval, when the civic order comes under attack from a new values regime.”
  3. Unraveling: “a downcast era of strengthening individualism and weakening institutions, when the old civic order decays and the new values regime implants.”
  4. Crisis: “a decisive era of secular upheaval, when the values regime propels the replacement of the old civic order with a new one.” (3; 101-104)

Within each turning comes a “generational archetype“.  The High spawns a “Prophet generation”, the Awakening a “Nomad generation”, the Unraveling a “Hero”, and the Crisis an “Artist.” (19) . Each generation cycles through these types, although I think what this means is that a generation produces a small group of people embodying these patterns, rather than an entire generation becoming artists, nomads, etc.

Mount Rushmore, photo by the Chris Collins family

“Looking from left to right… Nomad, Hero, Artist, and Prophet.” (91)

Most of the book involves working this code out across American history and the then-present, with raids on other histories, historiography, and a final lunge at the future.  For example, Strauss and Howe explain that a recent “High” was 1945-1963, followed by an “Awakening” through the 1980s, an “Unraveling” into the 1990s, and an upcoming “Crisis” around 2005-2007.  To sum up: “we are presently in the Third Turning of the Millennial Saeculum, the seventh cycle of the modern era… giving birth to the twenty-fourth generation of the post-Medieval era” (19, 123).

The authors insist on the power of their system.  They think the timing can wriggle around a bit, but the turnings must happen in order and within that 80-100 year frame.  They allow “accidents” (events which don’t fit the system), but insist that what really matters about such events is “society’s response to them” (116; emphasis in original). They don’t have much interest in humility; the book’s subtitle is “an American prophecy.”

One of the biggest problems with the book is classic problem of trying to cram all of history into a narrow frame.  Its judgements are so impressionistic that they are sometimes simply wrong.  Describing the Kennedy administration, the authors refer to its imagining of the future as having “specificity and certainty but lack[ing] urgency and moral direction.” (101) I’m still not sure what that means, but I’m not sure it works on its face.  The Apollo program, the US intervention in Vietnam, the civil rights struggle certainly possessed urgency.  Moral direction suffused the New Frontier and its expansion of the Cold War, not to mention black organizing against white racism.

Soylent Green posterEarly on the text looks back 25 years to early 1970s forecasting, which is a fine thing to do.  One passage cites Soylent Green (good) and EPCOT (ok) as attempts to predict futures which didn’t happen.  I’m not sure what EPCOT got wrong in this sense (surely world is more technologically immersed?), but yes, we didn’t head into a world of massive overpopulation and industrialized cannibalism.  (Personally, I see the latter, especially voiced by the Club of Rome, as a fine example of futures work not as prophecy but as warning, and therefore as a success.)  Strauss and Howe then build on their thought in a peculiar way:

late-seventies forecasters made a more fundamental error… they all assumed America was heading somewhere in a hurry.  No one would have imagined what actually happened: that through the 1980s and 1990s, while different societal pieces have drifted in different directions, America as a whole has gone nowhere in particular. (18)

This sounds appealing for about one tenth of one second, until you start thinking about the massive developments of those two decades.  The internet, for example; AIDS and progress in gay rights; the birth of the modern right wing, starting with the Moral Majority; the Democratic party’s hard turn to the center and right; the end of the ozone hole crisis; massive rearmament; the drastic resurgence of income inequality.  Not to mention the whole nearly destroying the world thing in 1983, the end of the Cold War, and the first of a new world order.  You know, “nowhere in particular.”

Elsewhere, one passage offers a handy one-sentence summary of the “turning” idea:  “In a High, people want to belong; in an Awakening, to defy; in an Unraveling, to separate; in a Crisis, to gather.” (112; emphases in original)  This sounds roughly right, if we read back our history in a friendly way.  Sure, people gather together in a crisis, and so on.  But if we read critically, we find people acting in all four of those lines throughout history, breaking out of the four-phase template.  People, especially Americans, are delighted to defy and separate every decade and probably every year since Plymouth Rock.  Again, these formulae become bromides, or simply fall apart when taken seriously.

This impressionism also leads to some serious blind spots.  A quick tour through British history, applying the code back as far as the fifteenth century, identifies the War of the Roses and the Glorious Revolution as epochal events, while utterly missing the English Civil War, that revolution, Cromwell’s regime, and the Restoration, each at least as important as the foregoing, and probably more so.  But the timing’s off, so 1640-1660 doesn’t get its bullet points and position on helpful tables (45).  Speaking of British history, Strauss and Howe are quite open about seeing American history in that light.  They admit that Americans came from other nations and continents (Asia, Africa, the rest of Europe) and that some didn’t arrive at all (Native Americans), but set those aside because the great cycle started with the British (94).

Another blind spot swims into our view when the authors address demographic issues other than their generational dynamic.  They see anxieties about overpopulation only in terms of their saeculum, and can’t account for a multi-generational project to redo millennia of human population practices when it’s right before their eyes, except to cram it back into their framework (194-5).  That this development could warp their model –  do only children react differently to their forebears than kids among broods of a dozen? – remains unaddressed.  We can see this in the authors calling on GenX to become “America’s largest potential generational voting bloc.” (327) Setting aside questions of mobilization, this fails for two reasons: GenX is much smaller than Boomers or Millennials, a fact clearly known in the 1990s; mass media love ignoring GenX, a fact which we in that generation could have told you, had you asked us.

The generational archetypes strike me as the weakest part of The Fourth Turning.  They offer glancing glimpses into historical figures encountered for the first time, but offer little insight beyond that, and ultimately fail to characterize people usefully.  Prophets, for example, include religious leaders, as one might expect.  They also number atheists, managers, and war leaders. “Their principle endowments are in the domain of vision, values, and religion… These have been principled moralists, summoners of human sacrifice, wagers of righteous wars.” (96)  In short, a “Prophet” is just about any political, religious, or cultural leader.

Similarly, “Nomads” include “Stonewall Jackson, George Patton… George Washington and John Adams, Ulysses Grant and Grover Cleveland, Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower… Their principle endowments are in the domain of liberty, survival, and honor.” (96)  Elsewhere we learn that Huey Long and Boss Tweed were also nomads (269). At this point I’m not sure why the authors even use the term “nomad” (John Adams?!).  They certainly aren’t addressing nomadic patterns within native American nations.  Perhaps they are referring to physical mobility, hence Patton and Grant?  We can easily swap personages between these two categories with at least as much logic as the authors show for including them.  The other two archetypes offer the same superficial sense and deeper uselessness.  It reaches the point where Andrew Jackson and Walter Mondale are lumped together (!) as “Artists”.

A similar problem attends the idea of “gray champions.” (139ff)  Strauss and Howe pick up Hawthorne’s story of the same name (1837) to identify a figure who prophecies the advent of a fourth turning.  But the generic, impressionistic nature of this figure means it can arrive at any time, and embody basically any message, from reactionary to radical.

Ultimately the strong claims of the book are either too flimsy or unfalsiable to be of use.

These problems vitiate what must have been the book’s most vital section when it appeared, its description of and advice about an upcoming fourth turning (270ff).  It begins in a promising way, offering a series of potential crises, from state secession to disease outbreaks.  One of them actually comes pretty close to 9-11, imagining a terrorist strike, but with different nuclear and financial consequences.

Then things become too light to be useful.  One sober page reminds us that crises can trigger all kinds of distress (277).  Older people will warn young people about stuff (279, 285). Xers will not be happy all the time. A currency devaluation will cripple Boomer finances – ah, well, that didn’t happen.   A “great leader” will lead us into “a new High” – well, give it time, I suppose; again, this narrative arc could occur at any time, saecularly fitted or otherwise (300).  We might see popular desires for more free market economics, or less (310).

The advice we get is similarly weak tea.  We’re told to remember this is a different era than certain prior times.  A “Lincoln-like leader” might spark secession or greater unity, depending on timing.  We should “forge [a] consensus and uplift the culture” but “don’t attempt reforms that can’t now be accomplished.”  “Treat children as the nation’s highest priority, but don’t do their work for them.”  “Expect the worst [on defense] and prepare to mobilize, but don’t precommit to any one response.”  These are all generic, middle of the road nostrums that don’t really guide us one way or the other.

One bit of advice is actually quite specific.  Strauss and Howe recommend that we trim government spending.  “We should shed and simplify the federal government in advance of the Crisis by cutting back sharply on its size and scope…”  Related to this is a hedged call to “Tell future elders they will need to be more self-sufficient, but don’t attempt deep cuts in benefits to current elders.”  It seems like an economically conservative message is buried therein.

Now,. there are some useful insights in The Fourth Turning.  Opponents of the Obama and Trump administrations would each be glad to see that the book anticipated a return to “authoritarian government… rested and refreshed.” (108)  Strauss and Howe based their code on a basic observation about intergenerational struggle, a development humans have thought about since Procopius complained in the sixth century about Byzantine kids wearing Hun-style haircuts to irk their elders, and probably earlier than that.  But Strauss and Howe go a little farther, offering the idea that generations sometimes share commonality via leapfrog: “Your generation isn’t like the generation that shaped you, but it has much in common with the generation that shaped the generation that shaped you.” (79; emphases in original) . Call it the Harold and Maude hypothesis, but it’s a neat concept.

I was also impressed at how the book admitted one giant flaw in its system: the American Civil War.  For two pages (121-2) the text explores what it deems to be “the only conspicuous anomaly” to its scheme.  I admire how the discussion tries to apply the turnings and generational archetypes and ultimately finds them falling apart.  The book’s fierce determinism exits for just a moment, and the authors return agency to human individuals.  It’s a rough spot, one which the rest of the book sidesteps, but one I appreciate.  I’m reminded of how Steven Pinker tries to fit WWI and WWII into his narrative of declining rates of human violence.  Strauss and Howe do a better job in this brief passage.

There are other problems with the book.  A text so keenly focused on the future barely touches on science fiction at all, and then ignores the great creative works about the future (think of Heinlein’s future history, or Asimov’s Foundation sequence!).  It tries to coin some new terms, which the best that can be said of is they didn’t take.  Generation Xers remain Xers, not “the Thirteenth” (although I enjoyed being evoked by Rosemary’s Baby (194)).  While there isn’t a widely accepted nickname for the years 2000-2009, I don’t think any human beings other than Strauss and Howe have thought of them as “the Oh Ohs.”  My final nit to pick: the index is terrible, only a list of names, and not a useful one at that.

So to return to my framing device: what can we learn from this kind of flawed futuring?

Method: this kind of “key to all mythologies” scheme is not very useful for serious analysis or futuring.  Paying attention to generational differences has some advantages, but we should hesitate before building systems on top of them.

Blind spots: in 2018 I probably don’t have to remind readers of the importance of paying attention to populations other than straight white males, but that’s one group of blind spots this book struggles with.  A less obvious point is taking demographics seriously, as this book fails to do.

I am intrigued at the pre-2001 approach to religion.  Religion here appears mostly as a historical artifact, faintly echoed in the New Age movement.  Radical Islam does not appear, serving instead as a black swan.  Big, big blind spot.

XKCD classics

Popular understanding of futures work: first, American really love their generational tribes. We adore self-identifying by Boomer, Xer, Greatest.  The authors helped stoke this affection, and it rewarded them well.  Futures work that speaks to strong identity markers has a good shot of winning and audience.

Second, busy people like handy sketches.  Fourth Turning is a longish book, but the schema is clear, repeated throughout, and represented through many charts and tables.

Third, more deeply: this is a very 1990s book. It is suffused with neoliberalism’s cultural win, such as its call to cut back on elder services.  I’m not sure how far this goes, since so much of the futuring is cloudy or think.  One of the authors apparently worked with Steve Bannon on a film, but I don’t see Breitbart in The Fourth Turning.  Instead this is closer to second term Bill Clinton.

These three present challenges to me as a futurist.  Methodologically I try to use several tools, but research and time demands place trend identification and extrapolation at the top of my agenda, so I need to correct that imbalance.  I don’t share the authors’ blind spots about demographics or religion, but then again, that’s how blind spots work.  I need to know what I miss.

As a creator and business leader, I’m not sure I’ve connected as well with my audience as Strauss and Howe did.  I address people by their professional identities, in terms of job and institutional situation, but not much more than that.  I really fail to provide accessible sketches.  So this is a good prompt for me to improve outreach skills.

What do you think?  Does this book remind you of anything else?

(Mount Rushmore by Chris Collins and family; XKCD from that site)


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