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.
That’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.)
Readers 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.