Humanity’s next century: an Empty Planet for education?

Where is the human race headed for the next few generations?  What is in store for higher ed if the population bomb turns out to be a dud?

Demographics, demographics, demographics: my audiences know I harp on this topic as a major force reshaping the world as well as higher education.  It’s not a popular theme, however, beyond state governments and some senior academic leaders.  Demographics is a deep and unsettling topic.  It ends up in the margins or is simply ignored for a variety of reasons.

Empty PlanetThat’s why I’m happy to recommend a new book.  Empty Planet (2019) is a powerful, very accessible, and at times very surprising take on changes in the human population.

Why is it surprising? Because for a couple of generations many people dreaded human overpopulation as a planetary challenge of the highest order. As I wrote in 2017,

Back in the 1960s and 70s many people feared overpopulation, and for good reasons. Human population was rising. Serious research, most notably The Limits To Growth (1972; based on a powerful computer simulation), suggested crises to come, ranging from overcrowding to starvation. Science fiction and popular culture echoed this with novels like Stand on Zanzibar (John Brunner, 1968), books like The Population Bomb (1968), and movies like Soylent Green (1973) and Z.P.G. (1972).

(I remember clearly reading the liner notes for a piece of electronic-ish music around 1975. I was about eight, and the album cover back described music for an overpopulated future, when the earth was covered by giant buildings, packed tightly with far, far too many humans. I wish that memory was clear enough to include a title or composer.)

Population_BombReaders will have noticed that we did not arrive in such an overcrowded future, despite the appearance of a deplorable drink called Soylent. That’s because, in part, we were terrified of such a scenario, and responded by altering our behaviors.  Other factors kicked in as well.  Together they drove a huge, history-transforming change whose impacts are just starting to appear. Bricker and Ibbitson ably explain this, connecting scholarship with personal stories in very friendly prose.

In brief, Empty Planet describes an ongoing multi-decade, multi-continental shift in human life, whereby we produce fewer and fewer children. A growing number of populations are actually spawning “below replacement level” – i.e., producing fewer offspring than two parents, below two children for every (biological) couple.  This leads to a shrinking population, unless immigration floods in.

This is not a universally held model of unfolding demographics.  Early in the book Bricker and Ibbitson point out a United Nations population projection, which heads in three very different directions.  Either the human race balloons in Population Bomb fashion, or grows more moderately, or actually starts declining.

As the book’s title proclaims, Empty Planet thinks we’re headed for door number three.

Why? The reasons are multiple, including advances in medical science, public health, and the education of girls and women (yes, higher education is helping tamp down the human population’s growth). We could sum this up with the word “modernity.”  In addition, smaller families means fewer demands on fertile people to produce more kids (50; 111-112). Teen pregnancy rates have plummeted in developed nations, a very positive and criminally underappreciated story (95-6). Pop culture now presents growing accounts of interesting lives featuring families with few or no children (135). Female sterilization, increasingly voluntary in nations like Brazil and India, further reduces total fertility (136).

If Bricker and Ibbitson are right, and we head for the UN’s lower projection world, then the implications of this transformation are many.  They are also neither well understood nor commonly discussed, but Empty Planet offers a good starting point.  National leaders can view underpopulation as a security threat, and might not react well, based on historical precedent and some present developments (62). Wars might decline along with the primary war-fighting population, leading to a what Bricker and Ibbitson’s splendidly dub as a “geriatric peace.” (232) Politics can lag behind reality, as, for example, Latinx immigration into the US has declined for more than a decade, as those nations have seen their fertility rates fall, but, alas, Trump (149). Carbon emissions may start to decline once total population turns around (230). Some nations will have to deal with a drop or collapse in their working-age, tax-paying population.

Beyond economics and politics, cultures should change as well.  Creativity and invention may slow down, as, in the authors’ words, “it’s hard to innovate when your society is old” (83).  Entire cultures and languages may fade away, if they dwindle below certain levels (198, 205).

And migration politics become difficult if not heinous. Bricker and Ibbitson are unabashedly pro-immigrant, urging under-reproducing societies to more generously welcome populations from elsewhere (148, 209).

In the rest of the developed world, principally the United States and Canada, immigration will become the sole driver of population growth starting sometime in the 2020s. (151)

In response to this demographic change, some nations may try to encourage more reproduction. Bricker and Ibbitson are skeptical about the efficacy of such moves (examples appear from Sweden and Singapore), finding them expensive, politically fragile, and actually accomplishing little (72).  (The United States has largely been quiet on this score.  I’m tracking any signs of such encouragement closely – for example.)

What does Empty Planet‘s world mean for education?

To begin with, primary and secondary schools (pre-K-12 in the US) will face shrinking student bodies.  A positive aspect is that we could see student-teacher ratios decline, unless things change.  Unfortunately for classes, things are likely to change, as local and state governments, eager for any cost savings, turn to cutting classes, teachers, programs, and schools.

On the post-secondary level the traditional-age student (18-24 years old) pipeline will keep narrowing, year after year, pressuring colleges and universities that serve that population to compete ever more intensely.  This will make inter-campus collaboration more difficult, and help drive institutional mergers and closures.  Many colleges and universities will seek to pivot towards adult learners, which can be a difficult process without guaranteed success.  Campuses focusing on traditional-age undergrads will face an increasingly uphill battle to thrive or survive, and constitute a shrinking – minority – niche within the overall postsecondary education sector.

Further, Empty Planet implies hard times for public higher ed, at least in the United States, because state governments will have a harder time funding that sector.  Many states will see their health care spending grow every year, due to older folks’ greater use of medical services, unless and until health care financing is massively overhauled.  Those same state governments will also have to spend more for pensions as retirees live longer.  Financially, unless states win tax windfalls, they’ll probably be more interested in cutting public higher ed funding.

(There are many political ways this could go, of course.  Humanitarian disasters await, if states start cutting their health care and senior support mechanisms, for example)

(There are more grim politics available.  We could see conservative calls for more (white) women to have more babies, and such calls link themselves to an old right agenda of keeping women in the home rather than the workforce, not to mention anti-abortion policies.  From another angle, anti-immigrant sentiment could target colleges and universities far more than it has so far, if academia becomes increasingly multinational and academic leaders publicly call for more immigration.)

On the other hand, if geriatric peace breaks out and the United States is able to cut down defense spending, perhaps a “geriatric peace dividend” will be able to be spent on higher education.  That might be one way to better support poorer students, and perhaps to bring back tenure track faculty lines.

Nations experiencing the most rapid aging patterns may decide to more aggressively recruit students internationally, especially from nations further down the demographic developmental track – i.e., central and sub-Saharan Africa, Pakistan, and a handful of others.  The global higher education market will keep expanding, both in terms of face-to-face travel and online teaching.

Academic research may change slightly.  If Empty Planet is correct, there will be a crying need to study cultures and cultural artifacts before they disappear as their supporting populations dwindle.  Linguistics, anthropology, history, political science, comparative literature, environmental studies come to mind as disciplines that might extend their work here.  Study abroad might include a cultural extinction element, too.

Although I do recommend this book highly, I have some questions and concerns. The point about innovation and age: have the authors received charges of agism? To what extent are voluntary reductions in child-bearing the province of the wealthy and well-educated, leaving out the poor and rural? The authors touch on this (122), but I’d like to see more. I’m curious about the authors’ thoughts on the role of media and agency, since they see South American tv driving women’s decisions there, but find some Indian women immune to Bollywood’s romances (171).

Once more: an important and engaging book for our time.

I’ll follow up on this theme with more futures work.

(early draft of this first posted to Goodreads)

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6 Responses to Humanity’s next century: an Empty Planet for education?

  1. Joe Essid says:

    A smaller human population, without war or pandemic, would be a great long-term blessing. I would love to consider (since I won’t live to see it) a stable population of about 2 billion souls, assisted by AI and automation we can only now envision.

    We will need a new economics based upon contraction to manage it, perhaps by some form of automation tax. I don’t know but it would be interesting to hear ideas about how to maintain a shrinking population without economic collapse. Our growing population is pushing us towards environmental collapse as-is, so I’m open to peaceful ideas for changing that.

    The “poor and rural” will not see any benefit to larger families either, unless they till the earth by hand. I’m managing a six-acre field that could easily be put into crops that would feed a couple hundred folks, sustainably. It’s in a soil-restoration program now with the goal of enhancing wildlife and keeping the land open as a kind of reserve against all sorts of thing (catastrophe is not mentioned in the state documents). I manage that tillage, seeding, and cultivation by myself with a few old-school, human-directed robots called tractors. Before mechanization, it would take a family of 12 kids to maintain such a farmstead.

  2. Christopher Davis says:

    Thanks for sharing the reference. I have shared the same concern for the last several years. (Don’t blame me…my wife and I have 10 kids. We are doing our part.) You may recall that Stand on Zanzibar did correctly anticipate legalized marijuana.

    My other concern with the demographic patterns are the use of selective abortions and female infanticide in China and India over the last couple of decades. This will put the gender balance way out of whack. Also, to the degree that a culture is hierarchically disposed against people from other cultures, this will make it hard to re-balance. I am not sure how that will play out, but given that both countries are significant for the future of humanity, it will be important. (I think.)

    The other aspect to this discussion is the role of automation. A smaller population might be feasible with increased automation. It will be interesting to see how these two trends intersect. In Asimov’s robot books, the earth was crowded, underground, and no robots. The colonized worlds had the robots, open spaces, and few people. We might see that latter vision happen on earth and with Muskies on Mars (obscure Greg Bear reference there).

    For education, though, you are right. Many communities especially in the midwest and New England have already seen this pattern.

    The future risk might be not a population boom but a regressive social collapse because of too few people and an inverted age pyramid. I look to Japan as the leading point on this spear.

    It also speaks to immigration, even more so in Europe. In the U.S., our history and culture is only a fraction of the culture of the European countries. They are at real risk of losing cultural identity due to low fertility and immigration.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Good call with Stand on Zanzibar! I haven’t read War Dogs yet; how is it?

      Empty planets, lots of robots… sounds about right for one model.

      Also good points on immigration.

      • Christopher Davis says:

        War Dogs starts out as a modern Starship Troopers…a war story told through the point of view of the grunts on the front lines. Across the trilogy, though, it morphs into something more. It is a nice companion to the Dark Forest books at providing a view of extraterrestrial life. I don’t always read the next book in a series anymore…there are too many books to be read…but I did read (listen really) to all of these in order.

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