Opinion

What’s in Store for the Next Two Generations of BC School Kids?

Robots, rising seas and more seniors, oh my.

By Crawford Kilian 21 Apr 2017 | TheTyee.ca

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

Kim Campbell — who started her political career as a Vancouver school trustee from 1980 to 1984 — famously implied that an election campaign is no time to discuss “very serious issues."

She was quite right. A campaign is the time to articulate a platform developed over years of earlier discussion, and to sell that platform to the voters. With election day looming, no one’s in the mood for blue-sky speculation by their politicians.

This is especially true of education issues, since schools are among the most conservative institutions in the country. Teachers, students and parents alike just want to get through the year and then prepare for the next one. No one wants to rock the boat with serious innovation.

Nevertheless, every damn year the boat gets predictably rocked. A new government wants to look good (or make the last government look bad). Student numbers go up and down, deranging the most careful budgets. Some new fad creates a demand for some kinds of teachers or kills demand for others. (I’m still sore about the early ‘80s, when we college teachers were being urged to crank out as many keypunch operators as possible.)

Most often the boat gets rocked by some perfectly predictable demographic trend: old people getting older, families getting smaller, women going into the workplace instead of staying home, immigrants arriving from the latest awful upheaval somewhere else. We actually have a pretty good handle on such developments, yet they keep taking us by surprise.

A generation under the Liberals

B.C.’s current election takes place after a whole “generation” of our children have gone through public or private schools under Liberal governments for a dozen years and more. The graduating class of 2017 entered Grade 1 in the fall of 2004. For good or ill, this year’s grads have been educated entirely under Liberal policies.

We shouldn’t even be able to say that; good education should be a nonpartisan issue, like clean drinking water. But it is partisan, and likely to remain so. The problem for parents and voters alike is to make it clear to partisans that education is a long-term concern — a concern not just for the current batch of kids, but for the province and the country through the rest of the century.

Until politicians get an earful from voters about this, we will stumble from crisis to crisis and our kids will pay the price. So let’s consider some predictable developments over the next quarter-century, and how our schools should prepare for them.

An aging province

The students entering grade one next September will graduate (most of them) in June 2029. The students entering grade one in 2029 will graduate (most of them) in 2041. BC Stats has fairly reliable population projections as far ahead as 2041 that show us how both generations will graduate into an increasingly old world.

This year, B.C.’s population is 4.8 million. In 2029 it will be 5.4 million, and in 2041 it will be just over 6 million. But proportions of young and old will be dramatically different. Today, 611,800 are aged five to 17, and 888,000 are 65 or older. In 2029, 677,100 will be five to 17, and those over 65 will total 1,315,100. By 2041, we’ll have 720,600 school-agers and 1.5 million over 65 — that is, born in 1976 or earlier.

So while we will have more young workers, they will have to support not just themselves and their own families, but a far greater number of elders who stubbornly refuse to die. (I plan to express my profound gratitude to those youngsters in a Tyee article on my 100th birthday in early 2041.)

This means each youngster must be educated superbly for a high-income, highly taxed career that will help to support grandparents and great-grandparents. The days when we could flunk a quarter of our students are over. When kids are a relative scarcity, we can’t afford to consign anyone to poverty.

The schools will also need enormous resilience. As well as the demographic trends, B.C. will have to cope with absorbing large numbers of refugees and one climate crisis after another, and perhaps the consequences of a major earthquake or pandemic.

It will be self-defeating to pretend such events won’t happen. We are now into an age when the worst-case scenario is the likeliest — and a tax increase is far from the worst case we will face by 2041.

So B.C. public schools cannot be plundered to rescue the government of the day from some particular disaster. Robbing the schools amounts to eating next year’s seed corn, ensuring a nasty, brutish and short life expectancy for the politicians who try it.

Repurposing our malls

That doesn’t mean we need to pour ever more money into our current system. We may be able to save money in unexpected ways as the economy changes. For example, bricks-and-mortar retailers are shutting down. According to Paul Krugman, half a million Americans have lost jobs in retail since 2001, 18 times the jobs lost in U.S. coal mining. As more people buy stuff online, shopping malls will become obsolete.

Why not repurpose them as schools and seniors’ centres? Sell some existing school properties to cover the costs, and then let the kids and seniors hang out together. They might as well; they’ll be living together for the foreseeable future.

And don’t worry about meeting the demands of the job market. Teach the kids literature, music and arts, as well as about environmental issues (and robotics). Even if robots do take over most of the service industries, the arts will be the last to go. Artificial intelligence may write the script for Superman Marries Batman, and then make the movie without a single human actor, but human-made creations will still have a market.

Even a robot-generated economy will need customers, so the classes of 2029 and after will likely have a universal basic income, giving them the freedom to choose personally meaningful work while the robots construct seawalls along the shores of Burrard Inlet.

Or maybe the robots are a pipe dream, like the keypunch operators of the 1980s. “Meaningful work” can also mean learning to build your own home, including the wiring and plumbing, or working on a vertical farm.

The kids who graduate in 2041 won’t even be born until 2023 or so. Plenty of us born in 1941 (or earlier) will still be around, retaining enough of our marbles to vote for our own interests. That interest depends critically on the wise long-term education of our children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren.  [Tyee]

Read more: Education, BC Politics

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