The British government’s spending review looms on 20 October, and higher education looks like a low hanging target for major cuts, all of which puts me in a pensive mood. The numbers of students admitted to higher education will be reduced: an event whose epochal significance has gone unnoticed. In fact this represents the high-water mark of a process of burgeoning access to university which began with the GI Bill in the United States after World War II. The massive expansion of higher education which took place in the US in the 60s took somewhat longer to materialise in Europe. In the 80s, the UK was still experiencing grwoth, and I was lucky enough to catch the tail end of a buoyant job market when I joined the profession here in 1999.
Since then, the British population has continued to age and the ethnically British have begun to decline in real terms. This affects me less than most others in the HE sector since a majority (or near-majority) of my students at diverse Birkbeck College are not ethnically English, Scottish, Welsh or North Irish and are in their 30s rather than in the 17-20 age bracket.
That said, during my lifetime, the number of young people will level off and decline – something that will be especially notable in provincial and rural parts of the western world. In Eastern Europe, and then in East Asia, numbers will be falling year on year. Western Europe, Canada and Australasia will trail in their wake. This wave of voluntary population contraction, recently chronicled in books like Philip Longman’s Empty Cradle and Ben Wattenberg’s Fewer, will sweep out of the rich countries to encompass Asia, Latin America, and, eventually, Africa. Some time in the second half of our century, the world’s population will peak at 9 billion and begin to decline. A good thing for climate change, but also a revolution in human affairs that will surely impart a painful shock to the expansionary mindset which has been a human constant since 100,000 BC when our species began to move out of Africa.
The old conquering worldview is still fervently held in North America: the US, bulked up on immigration, is surging toward 500 million consumers by 2050. In Canada, the watchword when I grew up was always ‘growth, growth, growth’ with the newest housing frontier (complete with portable and show home) never too far from my house. The frontier spirit became transmogrified into ‘cut (trees) and pave’, the credo of the libertarian right, with cookie-cutter suburbs, office parks, big box stores and greenfield shopping malls the hallmark of progress. The left also played its part by attacking barriers to mass immigration, which helped fuel the development boom of entire regions like southern California and Nevada, or metropolitan Houston, Toronto, Chicago or Vancouver.
Will the era of population contraction herald the rise of a historically unprecedented, more mature worldview, with nations content to just be themselves and economies happy to improve through technical advance rather than the brute Marxist accumulation of labour, fixed capital and resources? The possibility of us becoming less innovative and energetic with age is lamented in the introduction and conclusion of Richard Jackson and Neil Howe’s imaginative Graying of the Great Powers (2008). It also characterises the mood of contemporary Japanese youth, writes Norihiro Kato. We live in an era of ecological limits. The Great Shrinking will not have arrived a moment too soon. That said, not everyone will play ball: as I point out in my latest book, Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth, religious fundamentalists of all faiths are continuing to increase in population, and in a contracting world, their clout will increase by leaps and bounds. But that scenario lies several generations in the future. In the meantime, let us enjoy the more modest horizons of our maturing world.