The world is getting warmer, older and more robot-filled. Trade and other tensions between the United States and China are likely to become the pre-eminent global power struggle, surpassing even the Sturm und Drang of America’s late-20th-century Cold War with the Soviet Union.
But Zanny Minton Beddoes, the first woman editor-in-chief of The Economist, brought a message of cautious optimism — and an authoritatively crisp British timbre — to about 50 students, faculty and staff in the Washburn Lounge on Wednesday morning. Introducing her was student Melanie Mathewson. Later in the day, Beddoes spoke to a full Symphony Hall in the second lecture of Lesley University’s Boston Speakers Series.
A former adviser to the International Monetary Fund, Beddoes said both on campus and in Boston that she believes the global spirit of innovation, particularly within the encouraging environs of free markets — can ameliorate the global climate change crisis, just as scientific advances brought myriad disease epidemics to heel.
But it won’t be easy. Emerging national economies, established and powered by fossil fuels just as America and Europe during the 19th-century Industrial Revolution, are choking earth’s atmosphere with carbon, yet, “They have every right to the same kind of affluence” that America and Europe enjoyed, Beddoes said on campus. The challenge will be for “developed” countries to respect the economic sovereignty of nations like China, India, Brazil and others, while offering sufficient incentives and aid to keep fossil-fuel emissions in check.
That’s why the Great Britain-born Beddoes scorns the Trump administration’s nonchalance — even outright denial — in the face of the scourge of climate change. “You lack American leadership,” regarding the environment, she said.
However, the environment isn’t the only threat to our future. To paraphrase Shakespeare, the fault lies not in our stars, but in ourselves. The global population is aging while birth rates in many industrialized nations is stagnant or falling.
“This is a little crude but, in Japan, there are more adult diapers being sold than baby diapers,” Beddoes said in her campus appearance. “More people are 65 and over than 5 and younger.”
Immigration, she said, holds one key to providing a younger work force, as well as a necessary pool of taxpayers to fund social welfare programs, particularly those (like Medicare and Social Security) mainly used by a growing population of senior citizens. A traditionally insular Japan is now starting to become more accommodating of immigration out of necessity, but aging populations tend to be suspicious of liberal immigration policies, stemming the growth of a potential labor force.
Irrespective of immigration, Beddoes said she sees the labor force here and around the world getting older, too, as greater longevity means that workers are outliving the sustainability of pensions and retirement plans. When “retirement age” was set at 65, she explained, life expectancy was about that long. Now that U.S. life expectancy is well into the 70s, many retirees will find it difficult to live out their golden years with sufficient gold.
The aging demographic, she indicated, is also likely to spur serious labor shortages, because of automation and the increasing use of robots in the workplace. While some see robots as a threat to jobs, Beddoes maintained that robots will require skilled, human workers to operate and maintain them. However, this puts pressure on an aging workforce to update its technological skills to keep pace with the advances, or risk falling victim to financial inequality.
Beddoes said she sees a brisk market for the “soft skills” of leadership, communication and other non-technological skills imparted in liberal arts education. The sticking point, however, will be whether the workers of tomorrow can afford the education of today.
“A cost of education that goes up faster than the cost of living is unsustainable,” she said, adding that it is likely that the entirely of the present-day accrued student debt will ever be repaid. “This current system cannot go on.”
The world stage
Beddoes spent much of her time in Symphony Hall discussing global economics and politics, cautioning listeners that a trade war with China, and the straining of long-held alliances in Europe, might have devastating consequences on the U.S. economy, though those consequences have been slower-than-expected to manifest. In a larger context, though, Beddoes has frets over a global shift away from free-market-fueled, multinational-oriented democracies and toward autocracy, if not totalitarianism.
“This is the year of the strongman,” Beddoes intoned. Coupled with the Trump administration’s “transactional unilateral foreign policy” — pulling out of climate accords, pushing allies to pony up more money as members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization — the future of worldwide robust free trade, and advances in human rights, seems murky.
However, Beddoes gives credit to Trump for his tax cuts and deregulation, which at least in the short term boosted the economy, now in its 11th straight year of expansion.
Beddoes at Symphony Hall posited that the polarization in people’s view of the state of things is reflected in the layout of The Economist itself. The front of the publication contains news and analysis of geopolitics — a gloomy, even desperate picture — while the back of the publication focuses on markets and economics in general, where the outlook is much sunnier.
And, she added, people’s view on the economy is colored by whether their political party is in power. When Democrats are in charge in the United States, for example, Democrats believe the economy is doing great, while Republicans inveigh against it, and vice-versa.
In her view, however, America’s recovery from the 2008 collapse, while real and sustained, is tepid, and she doesn’t see that changing.
“I don’t think there is a ‘normal’ that we’re going back to,” she said. In her native United Kingdom, the story is the same. The Brexit referendum to leave the European Union hangs over Britain “like a Sword of Damocles,” she said, yet the popular view is to respect the dictate of citizens, even if one questions how informed they were leading into the vote.