Let’s start with the great news.
Life is good and getting better for the people of planet Earth. In recent decades, hundreds of millions of people have moved from subsistence level to middle-class status. Especially in Africa and Asia, milk, meat, medicine and clean water are more available than ever. These very happy trends – the most significant events happening right now – are expected to continue.
But even as life improves for people at the bottom of the curve, those at the top – i.e. you and me – face mighty challenges in the years ahead, as N.C. State economist Michael L. Walden reports in “North Carolina Beyond the Connect Age: The Tar Heel State in 2050” (UNC Press, 176 pages).
In eight brisk and bracing chapters Walden projects how changes in our population, economy and environment will impact education, health care and government. A responsible scholar, Walden doesn’t engage in dark speculation – nuclear wars, global pandemics and moon-sized meteors don’t figure in his future. He also doesn’t blue sky technological advances, imagining treatments will make us immortal or power plants fueled by teaspoons of water – though he does think synthetic meat is coming (yuck!).
Still, the road ahead is daunting. It is also manageable since 2050 is not far off – most of us should live to see it – and the problems we will face then are those we are wrestling with today.
Walden predicts that North Carolina’s population will continue to grow faster than the national average. In 2050, 13.4 million of the country’s 399 million residents will call the Tar Heel state home (in 2010 those numbers were 9.6 million and 308.7 million, respectively).
Our state’s population will be even more concentrated in urban areas. Wake and Mecklenburg counties should see their population double by 2050, while a third of our counties, especially those in the east, foothills and north-central borders, will lose residents. This will require some hard choices not just about how, but whether we can afford to provide vital services, especially advanced medical care, to rural areas.
More ominous is the changing demographic mix of that population, especially the rising “dependency rate” which combines the number of residents under 18 and over 65, who rely on government services. This figure will rise significantly in North Carolina, to 40.8 percent of the population from 36.9 percent in 2010. Further complicating matters, the percentage of residents under 18 – who, we hope, will one day have jobs to support the rest of us – will drop sharply (to 19.5 percent from 23.9 percent) while the share of people over 65 will leap (to 21.3 percent from 13 percent).
“If current trends continue,” Walden writes, “public spending on programs targeted to the elderly, particularly in the health area, will take increasing amounts of public resources and will crowd out spending on other government functions.”
Efforts to contain these costs, especially replacing open-ended government programs with defined benefit approaches such as health care vouchers, may be necessary.
These fiscal pressures will intensify because of changes we are already seeing in the economy, as highly-skilled knowledge workers at the top enjoy great gains while millions at the bottom see their jobs shipped aboard or replaced by technology. Even though our state’s working age population will increase, one body of research suggests we may lose 1.3 million jobs by 2050. “Concerns about widening income inequality and a declining middle class will likely continue,” Walden writes. These forces may expand the number of citizens who “depend on crime, charity or government assistance to survive.”
Education, he notes, will be key to addressing, if not solving this problem. For those who have little interest in Plato and Marx, expanded vocational training can help meet anticipated needs for more plumbers, electricians, auto mechanics and hairstylists.
Even as he argues for radical experimentation – including more “specialized schools, cyberschools, home schools, boarding schools and business- and privately sponsored schools” – Walden notes that improving schools is not enough. The far deeper problems affecting student performance are the breakdown of family and neighborhoods, the “precipitous decline in student hours used studying, reading course materials and attending class.”
If there is a silver-lining in this often grim portrait, it is that we are trying to build upon what most of the world is still trying to attain. In addition, nothing Walden says is surprising. Tomorrow’s problems are mostly those we are wrestling with today. Here’s hoping his book reminds us that they will not solve themselves.
Contributing columnist J. Peder Zane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.