Why Academics With No Time Should Read ‘8 Billion and Counting’

8 Billion and Counting: How Sex, Death, and Migration Shape Our World by Jennifer D. Sciubba

Published in March of 2022.

The biggest risk that higher education leaders face is focusing on the urgent over the important.

This risk is magnified by what I judge to be a structural understaffing crisis across our universities. While the academic myth persists of administrative bloat, the reality is that fewer academics (both faculty and administrators) are doing more work.

The upshot is that most higher education leaders spend their days (and evenings and weekends) putting out fires where they should be devoting thought and effort to addressing more existential long-term challenges.

Perhaps the greatest of these long-term challenges is demography.

Readers of Nathan Grawe’s books, Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education and The Agile College: How Institutions Successfully Navigate Demographic Changes, know full well the demographic headwinds confronting higher education.

If Grawe got you interested in demography, then Sciubba’s 8 Billion and Counting is ideal for providing a broader perspective on population science.

Now, of course, I’m biased. Having trained as a social demographer, I’m hardwired to love any book about fertility, mortality, morbidity, and migration.

Demography may not be destiny, but it is close. In 8 Billion and Counting, Sciubba (a political demographer) does a fantastic job illuminating the major population trends impacting the US and the world.

Among the trends discussed in 8 Billion and Counting that every higher education leader needs to pay attention to are the rapid aging and growing diversity of the US population and the growth (and young age structures) of emerging economies.

Over the next 25 years, the proportion of the US population aged 65 and older will increase from 17 to 22 percent. During these same years, the median age in the US will climb from 38 to 41. The magnitude and pace of US population aging is not a trend that higher education as an industry has fully absorbed.

Reading 8 Billion and Counting should cause university presidents, trustees, and chief financial officers to prioritize a long-term transition of educational programs and campus facilities toward serving the needs of an older population.

At how many colleges and universities managing population aging a critical strategic priority? An older population has implications for enrollments and academic programs and employee recruitment and retention, campus design, marketing, branding, fundraising, research priorities, and likely most every other aspect related to institutional success.

Taking an international perspective, 8 Billion and Counting is particularly strong at describing population trends across emerging economies. For every baby born in a wealthy country, nearly ten are born across emerging nations.

The US is comparatively well-off when it comes to overall population trends, as our population will continue to grow over the decades to come. (Going from 330 million today to nearly 400 million by 2050). In contrast, absent significant immigration reform, the populations of many now wealthy countries will shrink over the following decades. The population in Japan will decline from 127 million to 105 million by 2050, while Italy will be closer to 50 million than 60 million in the same period.

In contrast, countries in the emerging world are growing quickly and have comparatively young populations. While in Japan, the median age is almost 49, in the fastest growing developing countries, the median age is below 25. As Sciubba explains in 8 Billion and Counting, there is a strong correlation between young age structures and political instability.

There is no way that India or the countries of Africa will be able to construct enough campus-based universities over the next 30 years to serve all those seeking a college education. How many US universities today are thinking seriously about a future where many of their students come from Africa? When a quarter of the world’s population is African by 2050, every institution of higher learning will need to have an African strategy to be relevant.

Reading 8 Billion and Counting will help us in academia learn the language, the trends, and the major issues related to population dynamics.

Any book that encourages us to step back from the immediate, and think about the long term, is a good investment of time.

As the daily work of academic life becomes ever more frenetic, a big picture book like 8 Billion and Counting can be an excellent antidote to the dangers of short-term institutional thinking.

What are you reading?

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