Education reform is a popular, if not routine, talking point dredged up during election cycles, but usually with little actual reform to show for it. Luckily, this plight of true education reformers won't last for much longer. In fact, the next two decades will see all that rhetoric turn into hard and sweeping change.
Why? Because an overwhelming number of tectonic societal, economic and technological trends are all beginning to emerge in unison, trends that together will force the education system to adapt or fall apart completely. The following is an overview of these trends, starting from the least high profile to the most.
The evolving brains of Centennials require new teaching strategies
Born between ~2000 and 2020, and predominantly children of Gen Xers, today's centennial teenagers will soon become the world's largest generational cohort. They already represent 25.9 percent of the US population (2016), 1.3 billion worldwide; and by the time their cohort ends by 2020, they will represent between 1.6 to 2 billion people worldwide.
First discussed in chapter three of our Future of Human Population series, a unique trait about centennials (at least those from developed countries) is that their average attention spans have shrunk to 8 seconds today, compared to 12 seconds in 2000. Early theories point to Centennials' extensive exposure to the web as the culprit for this attention deficit.
Moreover, centennials' minds are becoming less able to explore complex topics and memorize large amounts of data (i.e. traits computers are better at), whereas they are becoming far more adept at switching between many different topics and activities, and thinking non-linearly (i.e. traits related to abstract thought that computers currently struggle with).
These findings represent substantive changes in how today's children think and learn. Forward-thinking education systems will need to restructure their teaching styles to take advantage of Centennials' unique cognitive strengths, without bogging them down in the rote and obsolete memorization practices of the past.
Rising life expectancy grows demand for lifelong education
First discussed in chapter six of our Future of Human Population series, by 2030, a range of groundbreaking life extension drugs and therapies will enter the market that will not only increase the average person's life expectancy but also reverse the effects of aging. Some scientists in this field are predicting that those born after 2000 may become the first generation to live until 150 years.
While this may sound shocking, keep in mind that those living in developed nations have already seen their average life expectancy rise from ~35 in 1820 to 80 in 2003. These new drugs and therapies will only continue this life extension trend to a point where, perhaps, 80 may soon become the new 40.
But as you may have guessed, the downside of this growing life expectancy is that our modern concept of the retirement age will soon become largely obsolete—at least by 2040. Think about it: If you live to 150, there is no way that working for 45 years (starting from age 20 to the standard retirement age of 65) will be enough to fund nearly a century’s worth of retirement years.
Instead, the average person living until 150 may have to work into his or her 100s to afford retirement. And during that stretch of time, entirely new technologies, professions, and industries will arise forcing people to enter a state of constant learning. This may mean attending regular classes and workshops to keep existing skills current or going back to school every few decades to gain a new degree. This also means educational institutions will need to invest more into their mature student programs.
Shrinking value of a degree
The value of the university and college degree is falling. This is largely a result of basic supply-demand economics: As degrees become more common, they transition into a prerequisite checkbox rather than a key differentiator from the eyes of a hiring manager. Given this trend, some institutions are considering ways to maintain the degree's value. This is something we'll cover in the next chapter.
The return of the trades
- Infrastructure renewal. A great deal of our roads, bridges, dams, water/sewage pipes, and our electrical network was built more than 50 years ago. Our infrastructure was built for another time and tomorrow's construction crews will need to replace much of it over the next decade to avoid serious public safety hazards.
- Climate change adaptation. On a similar note, our infrastructure wasn’t just built for another time, it was also built for a much milder climate. As world governments delay making the hard choices needed to combat climate change, world temperatures will continue to rise. In aggregate, this means regions of the world will need to defend against increasingly sweltering summers, snow dense winters, excessive flooding, ferocious hurricanes, and rising sea levels. Infrastructure in much of the world will need to be upgraded to prepare for these future environmental extremes.
- Green building retrofits. Governments will also attempt to combat climate change by offering green grants and tax breaks to retrofit our current stock of commercial and residential buildings to make them more efficient.
- Next generation energy. By 2050, much of the world will have to entirely replace its aging energy grid and power plants. They will do so by replacing this energy infrastructure with cheaper, cleaner, and energy maximizing renewables, connected by a next-generation smart grid.
All these infrastructure renewal projects are massive and cannot be outsourced. This will represent a substantial percentage of future job growth, exactly when the future of jobs is becoming dicey. That brings us to our final few trends.
Silicon Valley startups looking to shake up the education sector
Seeing the staid nature of the current educational system, a range of startups are beginning to explore how to re-engineer education delivery for the online era. Explored further in later chapters of this series, these startups are working to deliver lectures, readings, projects and standardized tests entirely online in an effort to reduce costs and improve access to education worldwide.
Stagnating incomes and consumer inflation drive demand for education
Since the early 1970s until today (2016), income growth for the bottom 90 percent of Americans has remained largely flat. Meanwhile, inflation during that same period has exploded with consumer prices increasing roughly 25 times. Some economists believe this is due to the US’ move away from the Gold Standard. But no matter what the history books tell us, the result is that today the level of wealth inequality, both in the US and the world, is reaching dangerous heights. This rising inequality is pushing those with means (or access to credit) towards ever greater levels of education to climb the economic ladder, but as the next point will show, even that might not be enough.
Rising inequality being cemented into the education system
General wisdom, along with a long list of studies, tells us that higher education is key to escaping the poverty trap. However, while access to higher education has become more democratized over these past few decades, there remains a kind of "class ceiling" that's beginning to lock in a certain level of social stratification.
In her book, Pedigree: How Elite Students Get Elite Jobs, Lauren Rivera, an associate professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, describes how the hiring managers at leading US consulting agencies, investment banks, and law firms tend to recruit most of their hires from the nation's top 15-20 universities. Test scores and employment history rank near the bottom of hiring considerations.
Given these hiring practices, future decades may continue to see an increase in societal income inequality, especially should the majority of Centennials and returning mature students be locked out of the nation's leading institutions.
The rising cost of education
A growing factor in the inequality issue mentioned above is the rising cost of higher education. Covered further in the next chapter, this cost inflation has become an ongoing talking point during elections and an increasingly sore spot upon the wallets of parents throughout North America.
Robots about to steal half of all human jobs
Well, maybe not half, but according to a recent Oxford report, 47 percent of today's jobs will disappear by the 2040s, largely due to machine automation.
Covered regularly in the press and explored thoroughly in our Future of Work series, this robo-takeover of the labor market is inevitable, albeit gradual. Increasingly capable robots and computer systems will start by consuming low-skilled, manual labor jobs, such as those in factories, delivery, and janitorial work. Next, they will go after the mid-skill jobs in areas like construction, retail, and agriculture. And then they'll go after the white collar jobs in finance, accounting, computer science and more.
In some cases, entire professions will disappear, in others, technology will improve a worker's productivity to a point where you simply won't need as many people to get a job done. This is referred to as structural unemployment, where job losses are due to industrial reorganization and technological change.
Except for certain exceptions, no industry, field, or profession is entirely safe from the forward march of technology. And it’s for this reason that reforming education is more urgent today than it’s ever been. Going forward, students will need to be educated with skills computers struggle with (social skills, creative thinking, multidisciplinarity) versus those where they excel (repetition, memorization, calculation).
Overall, it's difficult to predict what jobs may exist in the future, but it's very possible to train the next generation to be adaptable to whatever the future has in store. The following chapters will explore the approaches our education system will take to adapt to the abovementioned trends set against it.