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The Coming Slowdown
What declining birth rates mean for the future of creative thinking
I’m Tim Gorichanaz, and this is Ports, a newsletter about design and ethics. You’ll find this week’s article below, followed by Ports of Call, links to things I’ve been reading and pondering this week.
The world is changing. Especially in a city, buildings and spaces are constantly being built and destroyed, closed and renovated. To say nothing of the people. Every day in Philadelphia I see many people I’ll never see again in my life.
It can be unsettling. Alvin Toffler called this “future shock” in his eponymous 1970 bestseller. It’s like culture shock, the disorientation of experiencing life in another country or region, but this is when we’re still at home. It’s as if our very home has gone to another country.
There are all sorts of examples Toffler gives in Future Shock as evidence of the extreme and accelerating change in our world:
It took mankind millions of years to develop a way to travel 100 miles an hour, but then only 58 years to quadruple that, and another 20 years to double it again.
Ninety percent of all the scientists who ever lived are alive today.
Transience and disposability are on the rise: The duration of the average human relationship is decreasing, as is the amount of time we own a given car.
We’ve started to rent more than we buy—from cars and real estate to clothing.
The average age of dwellings declined from approximately 100 years for houses built in the U.S. colonial era to about 40 years in the 1960s.
In 1950, there were 65 types of soaps and detergents on U.S. grocery store shelves, and by 1963 there were 200. Similar increases can be observed for frozen foods, baking mixes, pet foods, etc.
The average marriage has a shorter duration, and we’re witnessing a growing diversity in recognized and socially acceptable forms of adulting, including same-sex marriage, civil unions, open relationships and communal living.
Two examples I thought up while combing through the book to compile the above list:
Universities are shifting from primarily employing full-time faculty as instructors to adjunct faculty on course-by-course contracts. In 1987, about 39 percent of faculty were full-time with tenure; in 2021, only 24 percent were.
A vignette I like to share with my students also makes the point well: If all of humankind’s 100,000-year history were condensed into a 500-page book, with each page representing 200 years, then basically nothing would happen until page 450, when the agricultural revolution came. On page 488 we see the first coin, and on 498 Europeans come to America. It’s only on the very last page that you get the industrial revolution, space travel, and the invention of the internet. Meanwhile on this single page the world population went from 1 billion to 8 billion.
The upshot of all these examples is that things are changing and will keep changing even more. Change has been accelerating over the past 150 years, and it boggles the mind to imagine the changes the next 150 years might bring—or even the next 50.
But what if it’s not like that?
Turning a Corner
Perhaps the strongest trend pointing to a slowdown ahead is the decline in birth rates. Globally, birth rates have fallen from an average 5 births per woman in 1950 to 2.3 births per women in 2021.
Yes, infant mortality has also fallen (globally, from 2.9% to 0.4% over those same years), but even zero infant mortality wouldn’t be enough to outweigh the fall in births: For 200 women in 1950, 1,000 babies would be born of which 970 would live to age five; for 200 women in 2021, only 460 babies would be born of which 458 would live to age five.
This is at once frightening and fascinating. For the entire history of our species, we have been growing in number. Slowly at first, for a very long time—and now quite fast.
But that growth has slowed, and demographers are suggesting that soon it will reverse. Estimates vary, but our population is expected to peak sometime between 2040 and 2100 at anything from 8.1 to 10.4 billion people. (As usual, Wikipedia has a solid roundup.) And then it will start to decline.
This will change everything.
The Demographic Cliff in Higher Education
In my own admittedly cloistered world of higher education, we’re hearing a lot about the so-called demographic cliff. For years now, it has been expected that college enrollment in the United States would start to fall around the year 2025—simply as a function of decreasing U.S. birthrates starting around the year 2007. The Covid-19 pandemic seems to have brought that forward, as enrollment fell precipitously in 2020 and still hasn’t recovered.
Seeing this on the horizon, colleges have been strategizing ways to incentivize older students to get degrees, entice working professionals to come back to school and attract students who wouldn’t otherwise be college-bound.
But sometimes even our best efforts fall short, and the unfortunate reality is that there are simply too many schools. In 1900 there were around 1,000 colleges in the United States and today there are nearly 6,000. Many will have to close, and that is already beginning to happen. Just from the narrow keyhole of my own experience, I can think of three immediate examples: Last year, the college I live next to was acquired by a larger university; the university I work at just acquired another university in the suburbs; and the place in Wisconsin where my mom did her bachelor’s degree suddenly shut down.
And that is, of course, to say nothing of how artificial intelligence, YouTube, skyrocketing tuition, international relations and many other factors will impact higher education. Even if none of these issues existed, higher education would be in for a shake-up. But they do exist, and so the shake-up will be that much more violent.
So that is just my small world of higher education, and I have to imagine every industry and area is going to be shaken up in similar ways because of the demographic cliff.
What a Shrinking Population Means
I say that the decline in birthrates is the strongest trend signaling a broader slowdown because, in my estimation, population growth has been the main catalyst for change in the world. More people means more need (for food and shelter, at the very least) and also more ideas and possibly more conflict. Johan Norberg writes in a detailed way about all this in his book Open: The Story of Human Progress. With a shrinking population, that impetus goes away.
Already we are seeing some of the trends that Toffler observed in Future Shock reverse.
There is a growing interest in reuse and repair; fewer people are buying the newest iPhone each year. People are starting to reject fast fashion (Shein notwithstanding) and shop secondhand or buy higher quality garments that will last longer. In part this is driven by concerns about climate change, of course, but it also seems to be a disenchantment with consumerism—and the paradox of choice, transaction mindset and disposability that come with it.
And we’re also seeing a shift to a “slow life” strategy among Generation Z. Simply put, this generation is growing up more slowly. As Twenge reports in Generations, she and colleagues found through several studies that at teenagers Gen Zers were less likely to drive, drink alcohol, have sex or leave home without a parent than teens in previous generations; and today as young adults they are more likely to still be living with their parents. (Heck, even many millennials are still living at home.)
On one hand, we might be tempted to tell these kids to grow up and start adulting. It’s easy to judge the slow life as bad. But Twenge argues that the slow life strategy is a response to a safe environment. It’s a reflection that things are going well. When people are better educated and live longer, more healthy lives, they start families later and have fewer children—who in turn get better educations and are taken better care of, and, yes, grow up more slowly.
Should We Be Afraid?
The coming slowdown may seem scary.
It is common to hear that capitalism is built on the assumption of perpetual growth and that without such growth our society will collapse. But these assumptions are overly simplistic and do not take into account technological progress or other institutional forces.
Just as population growth catalyzed innovation because of the sheer number of people in the brainstorm session, perhaps population decline will catalyze innovation as well because of the necessity to do more with less. Necessity is the mother of invention. And perhaps AI will not “steal our jobs” but rather take on the jobs that there are no longer people to do.
The coming slowdown won’t be the end of civilization. I think it will be more like taking a long, relaxing breath after a period of manic exertion. A deep exhale that fuels a new age of creative thinking.
Ports of Call
Political Overconfidence: Giving a nice follow-up on last week’s post here on the topic of hubris, the podcast Hear Me Out this week discussed how the biggest problem with the U.S. Supreme Court is not partisanship but rather overconfidence.
Designing the Future: On his podcast this week, Lex Fridman (fellow Drexel Ph.D. alum!) interviewed Neri Oxman, a bio-designer. Her work falls under the umbrella of speculative design, somewhere between art and science, biology and computing. A lovely conversation.
Ghibli Films Ranked: Wired released a ranking of the Studio Ghibli films. I haven’t seen them all, but I’ll be using this as a checklist for the ones I haven’t.