Tuesday, 8 May 2012

A Changing World

There’s been a lot of talking about the Quebec students’ protests over rising tuition costs.  Some have complained the students are ungrateful, given that their tuition costs are the lowest in Canada.  Some point out that rising tuition costs and student debt are not being matched by paying jobs after graduation, making the debtload a crippling barrier.  Some have even made it into an issue of Generation X vs Babyboomers, claiming the government is stealing from the current generation to continue the privileges of the Boomers.

Regardless of what comes of this particular struggle, I think the world is changing in a profound way.  Since World War II jobs have been plentiful for the majority, education came with certain guarantees of better jobs and home ownership was almost universal.  Now, people with Master’s degrees are competing for entry level positions, student debt is reaching six figures and the average home costs five or six times the average annual salary.

Prosperity is no longer a guarantee, no matter how much effort you put into your education or job hunting.  We’ve all heard the dire statistics that the majority of people are one missed paycheque away from disaster.  Consumer debt is rising, mortgage debt is rising, student debt is rising, leaving people in a perpetual race to catch up.

I wonder if there will be a fundamental shift in how future generations plan their lives.  A generation of mothers who tried to have both full-time careers and be full-time parents created a generation of women who tended to choose one path or the other.  Those who live with the impact their parents’ choices tend to try and choose differently.  Will future generations turn their backs on university education as a mandatory step?

It would be interesting.  As enrollment drops, class sizes will go down, allowing professors to teach their students individually rather than in massive lecture halls.  University education could once again become a place where students are taught to think analytically over a broad spectrum.  In theory at least, since there is no guarantee they would follow this particular path.  But it would be possible.

With fewer university degrees competing for jobs, the degrees would once again become a meaningful distinction rather than a universal offering.

Without a guarantee of jobs, people will be less willing to accumulate education debt.  In fact they might be less willing to accumulate debt period, which would have a profound effect on our current economy model, which relies on debt to keep the wheels spinning at an accelerated rate.

Our current model is simply not sustainable.  It’s collapsing under its own weight.  The question is: what will take its place?

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