The Aftermath: The Last Days of the Baby Boom and the Future of Power in America by Philip Bump
Published in January 2023
Why are so many conversations about the future of higher education so pessimistic? Together, we could list many reasons to worry about the future of higher education. We might mention public disinvestment, student debt and stubbornly low graduation rates. Or we could talk about the mismatch between the supply and demand for tenure-track faculty roles and the growing proportion of all teaching done by contingent and adjunct faculty.
While all of the above worries about the future of higher education are valid, they each share a common underlying source—demography. The university system that we have today was mainly built to serve the generation of Americans born between 1946 and 1964, otherwise known as the baby boom.
What proportion of buildings on your campus were built to teach and house the students of this generation? How many of your faculty members were born into this cohort? And what will happen to our colleges and universities when future numbers of graduating high school students are rapidly declining (especially in the Northeast and Midwest)?
The best work on the relationship between demography and higher education is, of course, being done by Nathan Grawe. The Aftermath provides a way to widen our lens on the impact on the entire country as boomers age. From that broader perspective, we can then focus back down on demographics and higher education.
What do we learn from this wider demographic lens, and how might we apply that knowledge to perhaps create a brighter future for higher education? Anyone reading The Aftermath through a higher education lens might question why our colleges and universities are doing so little to prepare for an aging society.
A theme that runs through The Aftermath is that the U.S. will continue to age rapidly due to the massive boomer cohort and subsequent drops in fertility. By 2050 the demographic profile of the entire country will look like today’s Florida, as measured by median age and percentage over 65.
It still makes news when a university builds an on-campus retirement center, such as ASU’s senior living facility. Making room for elderly lifelong learners in the capital-building plans of universities remains rare. How often is the goal to include older learners included in an institution’s diversity, equity and inclusion strategic plans?
Another reason that today’s colleges and universities may want to prioritize creating opportunities for older Americans is that is where the money is. Baby boomers control over 50 percent of all wealth, compared to millennials (born 1981 to 1996), who only hold around 6 percent.
It may be that the boomers will pass down some of that wealth to help pay for their grandkids’ educational costs. But as Bump makes clear in The Aftermath, colleges and universities should not count on that windfall. The boomer generation’s wealth is highly concentrated. Generational wealth transfers tend to benefit the already fortunate. Colleges and universities should not depend on grandparents to pay the tuition of tomorrow’s students.
Another higher education takeaway from The Aftermath has to do with diversity. Where almost three-quarters of boomers are white, over half of the millennials are not. From a demographic perspective, the mismatch between today’s makeup of faculty and staff and today’s and tomorrow’s students is dramatic. What happens to student recruitment and retention efforts when the racial and ethnic composition of the university workforce is so out of whack with the learner populations we serve?
The big conversation on our campuses today seems to be all about the impact of artificial intelligence on how we teach and learn. These conversations are essential; I think most discussions have been measured and informed. Let’s keep having these talks.
But maybe, let’s also talk more about demographics.
In my fantasy world, the publication of books like The Aftermath gets as much campus attention as the introductions of new AI-powered chat bots.
Can we imagine the day when our campus communities read and talk about books like The Aftermath, building our long-term planning around tomorrow’s demographic realities?
What are you reading?