WEA Conference, 14 May, 2016, Wellington.

The initial invitation suggested I talk about the future economy and its relevance to adult education. I explained that the best advice I ever came across is ‘don’t make predictions, especially about the future’. You get a sense of the difficulties if you go back thirty years ago, say, and realise any forecasts of today would have been way off track. I’ve chosen thirty years back, to reflect a time when today’s average adult was entering adulthood.

Thirty odd years ago my daughter’s high school was drumming up donations to purchase more musical instruments for the pupils. Now I happen to be an active member of the local concert audience, but I wrote to the school suggesting they should give priority to acquiring computers, because in the future, that is, today, those girls would be very dependent on them; at that time, the school had but two clapped-out personal computers.

Please don’t suppose mine was an outstanding prediction. I had in mind that computers were replacing typewriters. In the time of mainframes I had no idea of just how pervasive personal computers would become. If you had told me then every modern miss would carry one in her handbag, I should have been astonished. Yet the mobile phone is, in fact, a hand-held computer.

There is another lesson I learned from the school at the time. For certain purposes – say, going to a play when there were limited seats – the school gave preference to those students who took Latin. Obviously some selection criterion was necessary, but Latin? My daughter happened to choose biology. You might say that the study of Latin is rigorous, but that is increasingly true for biology. Isn’t Latin the foundation of our language and civilisation? That is contestable, but perhaps biology is an even greater foundation for the way we live.

The reason Latin students were preferred was that Latin teachers were senior staff and they made the decisions. The reason they were senior staff? Good teachers of biology, or whatever, had other career opportunities so they more rarely rose to the top ranks of schools.

(Just to round off these school illustrations, I am not against Latin; indeed I am envious of those who have mastered it, for it was not a path I had the skills to travel. Second, for the record, my daughter did not go down a biology path occupationally but a mastery of biological principles has been invaluable in her life; she and my son are both employed in activities which are heavy users of computers.)

There are two lessons I want to draw. First, our thinking, and the institutions that underpin it, are dominated by where we have come from, not by where we are going; very often our expectations of the future are founded on unquestioned assumptions which are questionable. Second, where we are going is very uncertain and unpredictable. Perhaps the one secure prediction is that the future wont be like we expect it to be.

These need not be pessimistic conclusions. The best way to approach the future is to recognise that it is largely unknowable, but that we can develop skills which enable us to cope with that.

Think about the economy thirty years ago. It is easy to say that Rogernomics, which blew up shortly after, was a deviation, but I am sure more-market and its companion economic liberalisation were (almost) inevitable. Rogernomics (or neoliberalism) was an unfortunate and extreme version which did unnecessary damage and has still left elements to be reversed. For instance the neoliberal 1988 report on Post-compulsory Education and Training (the Hawke report) said that we should not distinguish between education and training which meant, of course, that the tertiary institutions should focus only on training. To this day we have lost the distinction except in rare places.

We should not assign all the changes which have happened since to that liberalisation. For instance, the number working in the manufacturing industry in New Zealand has halved. The reasons are complex: one is that productivity rises in manufacturing faster than in the service sector so employment rises relatively more slowly; another is that individuals are increasingly consuming services; yet another is that manufacturing is increasingly offshoring, where it can, to cheaper locations. We could have stopped the latter by continuing to protect high cost producers, but instead we source offshore and redeploy the labour to produce more valued services.

Thirty years ago we would not have thought much about globalisation, although it has been happening as long as we have historical records, although faster in the last two hundred years. I am not sure if we are entering a new phase – as an historian said, two centuries after the French revolution, ‘it is too soon to tell’.

One consequence of globalisation is the increasing ambiguity of cultural identity. Once you knew you were a New Zealander, or whatever. Today you probably also categorise yourself in some minority grouping – by ethnicity, gender, location, religion and so on and, as likely as not, you have either had overseas experiences or a loved one has. Thus there is a degree of uncertainty as what your cultural nationality exactly is.

Another consequence of globalisation has been the rise of globalised finance. In my view, we economists dont have a good handle on how the financial sector works – and neither has anyone else. My guess is that much is about transferring income entitlements through time so that individuals are taking the future profits, if any, as income today. (I say ‘if any’ because there is an argument that most finance is primarily a Ponzi scheme, shuffling IOUs, and that one day the system may implode, even more dramatically than it did in 2008, when many of the IOUs prove worthless until they were bought by the taxpayer.) It is this boom in finance which has generated the rising income and wealth inequality. Again you would not have predicted it 30 years ago. Inequality had been falling slowly in the postwar era.

One of the transformative recent changes is digitisation – the rise of the computer and the increasing access to information that comes with it. Again it is too soon to tell; who would have predicted after Johannes Gutenburg introduced moveable type that it would precipitate, among other things, the Reformation?

I dont have the space to do the linkage in full, but the information revolution may be part of the explanation of something that is puzzling leading economists – it may be that the great surge in economic growth of the last two centuries is coming to an end.

I have not the time to explore the whole of this argument, but it may be that the big technological innovation is digital information but that, unlike past revolutionary technologies, it is difficult to make a commercial profit from them. If that is correct it could mean a major shift in the way we organise society – market capitalism. We just do not know.

Whatever, there is the possibility that rich economies are entering a stage of what is called ‘secular stagnation’, that is, a period of in which productivity growth (as it is usually measured) is zero in the long term and in which traditional economic policies do not work. What this would mean, if the trend of the last decade or so continues, is that in a couple of decades GDP per capita in rich economies will be much the same as it is today, although middle-level economies will have higher material standards of living as they increasingly adopt existing top level technologies (which, not incidentally, will mean they will need better skilled labour forces). I am not sure what the prediction says about the poorest economies.

Stagnant material standards of living in affluent economies need not mean there will be no progress. Wellbeing may improve, with greater longevity and with better health while we are alive. With luck, the world will be more peaceful, although I can see reasons why one could easily be more pessimistic. We may be better informed, although past experience suggests we will be no wiser. Perhaps there will be more leisure, although we may have a problem in sharing it out, with the unskilled experiencing high unemployment and the very skilled experiencing long, stressful hours. I am guessing that the average working week may shorten  and there will be more holidays – New Zealand is not an international  leader in decreasing hours worked. Consumption and leisure activities are more likely to involve services – such as tourism – than things such as cars.

I have identified a few recent trends: structural change, liberalisation, globalisation, cultural ambiguity, global finance, the information revolution, secular stagnation and improving welfare and leisure without rising material standards of living. How well did the formal education system of 30 years ago prepare today’s adults? How well is it today preparing young people for the unpredictable future?

Adult education provides only a part of the rich range of the experiences from which we learn. Probably the most important is the conventional media, but commerce, the social media, blogs and self-education and many informal organisations such as churches play a part.

What strikes me is how poor the quality of much of this adult education is because it is a by-product of some other purpose. Commercial media is to make a buck either by charging or from advertising; they have a commitment to their educational activities only insofar as they contribute to the buck. As H. L Mencken said ‘No one in this world … has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people. Nor has anyone ever lost public office thereby.’ Dumbing down is the natural approach of a commercial educator.

We have not yet adapted to the information revolution. It is no longer what you know, when finding it has become so much simpler with the hand-held computer in the handbag. The challenge now is to evaluate the quality of the information which pops up on the screen.

One of the most common questions I ask myself on being told something is so, is ‘how does one know that it is true?’ Too often the answer is that the alleged fact was on the media or a web-based database, with the believer giving no critical evaluation of the truth. Very often the factoid is no more that an opinion reported without judgement by journalists, often advanced by someone in the pursuit of an agenda who has an interest in the reader being gullible. I understand why journalists take the naive approach – they do not feel competent to judge factual truth – but it assumes that the reader has some training in critical awareness. Yeah, right. How many would even know the expression ‘evidence based’, that is not jumping to a fashionable opinion but thinking through the issues carefully using evidence to support and contradict the theories we hold?

Isn’t there an issue of the extent to which the public can address and improve their understanding of non-trivial issues? Recall those I could only touch on earlier: structural change, liberalisation, globalisation, cultural ambiguity, global finance, the information revolution, secular stagnation and improving welfare and leisure without rising material standards of living. When did you last see a serious discussion on any of these, especially from a New Zealand perspective, because every country has its own distinct challenge?

Curiously, with some honourable exceptions, the universities do not contribute much either in their adult outreach or, as far as I can discern, in their teaching and research. In contrast, John Condliffe, who was professor of economics at Canterbury University College in the 1920s, once told me he had three future prime-ministers in his WEA classes.

Organisations like the WEA once filled gaps which mass tertiary education and the media have taken over. As their competitors are much better funded there may be little point in competing with them directly. Rather adult education needs to identify gaps.

That means that the informal institutions should not try to provide training for employment. Not only do they not have the funding, but much of what is provided is essentially anti-education, with the aim of preparing the student to be a pliable employee without any civic interest other than their pay packet.

That still leaves a huge gap. Here are some examples where the powerful institutions are failing to respond to.

At the moment there is a vigorous, but not very informed, public debate on the TPPA – the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement. Leaving aside the factual and opinion issues, the TPPA is a consequence of the latest phase of globalisation. Little of the public discussion reflects this. Much of the anti-TPPA position reflects a world economy which is passing; much of the pro-TPPA position is naive about the world economy which is looming. Where would the ordinary thoughtful adult get an assessment of these underlying issues – the nature of contemporary globalisation, especially about New Zealand in a global context? Certainly not the media; and I know of no formal tertiary institution which is meeting the challenge either.

Or consider how often do you gather something from the media and wonder whether it is true? Isolated at home, you have no means of testing for truth. Is there a place for a group to come regularly together and evaluate rigorously some examples. Take the Trump-Clinton presidential contest which seems to be being framed by the media for their own ends. Would it not be interesting to have a discussion on how our views of these questions are being shaped by the media and not just who will make the better president or who will win? A better understanding of the media shaping may well change our assessments of these latter questions.

And while these a macro-issues, there are also local ones, like – say here in Wellington – the Basin Reserve flyover and the Airport runway extension. Are any of us we satisfied by how well we are informed? I know that there are advocates who have strong opinions – and some even have some facts and analysis – but how often does the general public have opportunities to do an independent evaluation of the situation?

I would be disappointed if there was no demand for such programsfor it would reflect a narrowing of intellectual life in New Zealand and a consequent reduction of our ability to accept the challenge of change as we face an unknowable future.

Perhaps that is what we want. We want to be entertained rather than enlightened. We want to be comforted by a nostalgia for the past, even if that means we have little idea about what is actually going on in the present and are unprepared for the future. But that is not what education should be about – for children or adults.

Organisations like the WEA are still needed, providing they face the challenges. What must distinguish the WEA is its commitment to education – not to the TPPA or Trump or town politics but to enabling its members to understand the issues around them better.