Another glimpse of the rest of the 21st century

What will the rest of the 2000s look like?

This is where I spend most of my time these days, and I’m glad to see Pew adding their research might to the question.  Specifically, they just released a good analysis of United Nations population dataAnthony Cilluffo and Neil G. Ruiz offer a useful model of demographic (yes, yes, demography again) change that’s useful for anyone looking ahead, and especially for those interested in what comes next in education.

Let me pull out the bits that seem especially useful.

Big picture: they see humanity’s total population nearly maxed out at nearly 11 billion in 2100.  Our median age will keep rising, and the number of children born to each woman will drop to 1.9 (below 2.1, which is “replacement level”: keeps the population at the same total number).  Total growth will be under 0.1%.

“Starting in 2073, there are projected to be more people ages 65 and older than under age 15 – the first time this will be the case.”

Regional differences: Africa – well, subSaharan Africa – will be humanity’s demographic powerhouse, tripling in population by 2100.  Total Asian population will peak, then start shrinking around 2055, falling behind Africa’s.  Europe and the Americas – already far smaller in numbers – will peak, stabilize, then, sometimes, shrink, depending on the nation.

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National differences: The US and Canada will grow pretty much because of immigration.  Absent that, Canada’s population will decline.

India will race past China for the title of most populous nation only a few years from now, by 2027.  It will maintain that crown through 2100.

A group of African nations will swell into joining the ranks of the world’s largest: “Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Tanzania, Ethiopia and Angola.”  Pakistan will join them:

There’s much to ponder here.  How will geopolitics reorient itself as nations and regions shrink or swell up?  Think about tensions between India and Pakistan, growing into two of the largest countries on Earth, and both armed with nuclear weapons.  Or consider the path of China’s One Belt, One Road, which runs right through the growth areas.  Conversely, how will Europe or Russia respond to being edged down the table?  How will aging change national cultures and projects?

Think of America and immigration, and how dependent the former is on the latter for demographic growth.  Crying, wonderment, and/or laughing are appropriate responses for the short term.  I would add: some numbers depend on if we keep killing ourselves through deaths of despair.

How many of these nations will see political and/or cultural movements to breed more babies?  Some analysts think this is most unlikely, deeming women’s advances over the past century to be too persistent.  I’ve been looking for signs of pro-natal movements in the developed world, but haven’t found many.  Hungary’s right-wing government is interested.  I’ll keep looking.

Compared to other analyses, this Pew/UN model comes close to Morland’s in finding decreasing fertility and regional/national transformation.  It assumes more persistent growth than do Bricker and Ibbitson, who foresee fertility dropping more rapidly.  All three defy the 20th-century’s population bomb idea of rampant overpopulation.

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For education, why does this matter?

My readers know I’ve been investigating this for a while; the rest of you can look back through these posts for samples.  Let me now offer a few notes based specifically on this Pew/UN document:

  1. How much of higher education is orienting towards subSaharan Africa?  Think of research programs, satellite campuses, curricula, study abroad, sister universities, development projects, student recruiting, inter-institutional research teams.  Think, too, of open access in scholarly publication as a way to better develop African scholars, who now often lack access to too much of the scholarly world.
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      Should campuses energetically embrace open as a global good?

  2. As above, for India, the world’s largest nation in about the number of years from now that it takes a typical American humanities grad student to finish their degree.
  3. How prepared are colleges and universities to support older students?  On the one hand, the 18-year-old population isn’t exactly a growth industry, outside of a few nations (and who’s recruiting there?).  On the other, adult learners keep aging up.  Are we serious about educating seniors in large numbers?
  4. It seems logical for institutions in nations with declining populations to reach out internationally.  How is the global infrastructure for this?  Consider the public enterprises colleges and universities might lobby for: open borders; globalization; transnational organizations and authorities; improving internet access.
  5. If a nation’s university system fails to adapt to the reality of changing demographics, are they prepared to shrink?
  6. How might a significantly older populace change its attitudes and policies towards post-secondary education?
  7. If pro-natalist political and cultural movements appear and if they gain actual traction, how should higher education respond?  We know that education plays a vital role in reducing childbirth numbers; perhaps such movements will target colleges and universities.  This could represent another way for higher ed to be politicized.

As we wade more deeply into the rest of the 21st century, our species keeps changing.

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  One great task for higher ed is to respond wisely.

(Perhaps my next book should concern the year 2100, and the different futures we may experience getting there.)

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6 Responses to Another glimpse of the rest of the 21st century

  1. Sowmyan says:

    Hi Bryan, I am not a professional educator, but have been following some trends in the education industry. I am a retired person from India. I have been following your posts on higher education from the google plus days. I wish to share some perspectives.
    India had a very aggressive population control program that exceeded human freedom considerations at one point of time. Due to the backlash created by that situation, the population control program has been slow. I wish we do not reach the #1 status.
    We had a shortage of so many things as a poor developing country. Seats in colleges was one. When I finished my Engineering education in my state about 50 years ago, we had 8 engineering colleges in my state (there are about 20 such states within India). Now there are 552. So from a situation where we had a shortage of seats and even the deserving students lost opportunities, we have a glut where admissions are primarily through a common entrance examination, and some institutions do not find takers. These are either new ones, or very weak in infrastructure. Sadly the biggest criticism made of many fresh graduates now is that they are not employable. The quality of education has suffered in the weaker institutions. We also find them to be languishing without adequate gainful employment in the field of their specialization. At the same time those who graduate from the premier institutions of the country get global acceptance and get admissions in many American universities and Multi National corporations. If you are drawing a parallel with African institutions in the future, the need may be to guard against education becoming a business, and ensure standards are maintained.

    In India the students go to a course reputed to lead them to a good employment, and
    often those who go abroad for further studies do so to get better employment abroad than what they may get within India. To this extent, higher education at the best of institutions is only causing a talent drain for the country. Such a prospect would also be a sad result for the poorer countries.

    One other wasteful approach prevalent in India is for students finishing their engineering to join institutions of higher education in management (MBA), and switch career in a direction totally irrelevant to their basic engineering education. Most of them go for a sales / marketing stream and take up a job in companies dealing with fast moving consumer goods, where much of the engineering education they got is not useful. They may have saved 4 years of time and avoided occupying a engineering seat that was denied to others. Medical education is still in heavy demand compared to engineering, because medicine requires teaching institutions to be associated with a large hospital. The traditional graduate courses in other subjects such as economics, mathematics, physics, chemistry etc are not considered higher education, and simply taken as a default degree. The post graduation in these disciplines and courses in commerce and accountancy are taken by those with specific career goals.

    Nearly 21 of the 552 engineering colleges in Tamil Nadu have a status of autonomy. These institutions strive to strike a collaboration with international universities to improve the education they have to offer and build an image.

    One other weakness we may have is that courses are developed to cater to what is in popular demand. If computer science is most sought after, a institution may be allowed just about 60 seats, and may creatively develop courses titles such as Information technology, to get approvals and offer more seats. They can not be blamed for this as even employing organizations seem to not care for the discipline their engineers have done and hope to train an engineer from any discipline into a software developer through a 6 month in house program.

    I too believe that professional education must be a life long affair, and not finished in the early 20s. If any field is evolving it surely adds new technologies and techniques in 10 years. So higher education may need to be structured into smaller modules of continuing education incorporating all that was new in the last 20 years, and offered as short term programs of about 3 months duration so that the “student” does not have to take a long break. Better still they should be offered through distance education mode, with a short face time interaction in a campus. This way institutions can build a student population almost equal to the one they handle in campus. I am assuming 4 cohorts for 4 age groups that professional will attend during his career.

    I have also read about some subjects being shut down for want of demand. Demand is primary and a course that is not so much sought after may have to go. But rather than shut it down when some students are still in the process is sad. Institutions may have to do a better job of looking ahead, and take proactive decisions so that they can phase out a course without abruptly ending it and leaving the current students in the lurch. It may often be the situation that these course are in reduced demand, and if multiple institutions teaching the same subjects join together, they can facilitate a quasi distance education. The fate of the tenured faculty may be difficult to help.

    Distance education is perhaps one definite trend. It enables students to overcome geography, time, etc. The best part of the better distance education programs is their ability to create a student body that helps itself. Two weaknesses to avoid are: (i) for the faculty – to totally withdraw after creating a course, and (ii) for the institution – to run these on ‘join any time and complete any time’ mode. When different members of the same cohort differ in their learning rate, the peer support gets disconnected soon. It may be worthwhile for the institutions to bring the ‘distance students’ together for a face to face finishing and testing session, and award a degree to the suitable ones. Such efforts can scale with the support of information technology, and bring more students with lesser cost to the students and more surplus to the educational institutions.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      My dear Sowmyan, many thanks for writing such a rich, thoughtful, and generous commentary!

      India’s problems with university quality are deep ones. Fixing them would take a lot of effort. The autonomy you note plays a role. A good number of other nations struggle with this as well.

      Lifelong learning: do you see India as ready to make the big shift to supporting this?

  2. Vivian Forssman says:

    Hi Bryan. Perhaps because I am doing work in climate change adaptation training and education, I see everything through that lens these days. Given our reading of New York 2140 last year I am interested in your view of how the acceleration of social change resulting from climate change will affect higher education.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      My dear Vivian, thank you for this powerful comment. I am delighted that you linked it to our Kim Stanley Robinson reading.

      To be honest, I’ve been hoping to set time aside to explore the connections between higher ed and climate change. I’ve been researching both, but haven’t so far done much to cross the streams. Coming up.

  3. Interesting post, Bryan. Your seven points at the end begin to suggest this…but one wonders how higher education will morph in the coming two decades? I suspect there will continue to be universities, state colleges, liberal arts colleges, and community colleges…but the ratios may shift, as well as the definition of “completion.” We could go from getting degrees in 4-6 years to getting updates annually in a true lifelong learning environment. Should be interesting!

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Hello, Britt!
      I think you’re right about both shifting ratios and changing completion.
      One project asked us to think of lifelong learning as a series of university episodes. That’s been sticking with me.

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