Pieter Vanhuysse - "How Do We Change What We Are Teaching Today for Tomorrow?"

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Nov 03, 2015
by Heather Jaber
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Pieter Vanhuysse - "How Do We Change What We Are Teaching Today for Tomorrow?"

Pieter Vanhuysse, professor of comparative welfare state research at the Department of Political Science and Public Management of the University of Southern Denmark, discussed the impact of demographic shifts on economy and education

One of the first questions posed to participants during Aging Societies: Advancing Innovation and Equity was: why should a young person be involved in the aging industry? 

Besides the fact that most people have elderly family members or friends, the aging industry presents both inevitable and lucrative trends, explains Pieter Vanhuysse, professor of comparative welfare state research at the Department of Political Science and Public Management of the University of Southern Denmark. 

“It’s a billion dollar question,” he said. “Of all the major trends that are going to be happening to our societies in the next 20 years, this is perhaps the single most important one that we can predict. It is not the single most important trend…but it’s the single most important one that we can actually more or less predict, and therefore prepare for today.”

Vanhuysse’s research focuses on policy-related issues of aging populations, generational harmony or disharmony, and conflict or sustainability. Some of his work looks at the political causes and consequences of population aging. Other work includes measures of intergenerational equity to see how different countries react to burdens on the young and the overall pro-elderly bias of welfare states.

While Vanhuysse discussed bad policy-making at the introductory panel discussion on holistic approaches to aging, the deeper root explanation of these bad policies is human nature, he posits. These issues are manifested in myopia, or a very strong focus on the present rather than the future, and self-interest.

Still, aging societies do not only present problem-areas in global trends. “The very fact that we will have a different demographic composition of our societies will lead to different economic opportunities,” he explains. Demand for elderly care will trigger influxes of caretakers from youthful societies. The robotization of economies is another source of opportunity — Japan’s industrial robot market caters to one of the oldest societies in the world. They saw a demographic change, says Vanhuysse, and created a huge market for themselves.

The most important factor in solving aging society issues lies in education, he claims. Younger generations will be faced with the enormous and unbalanced task of providing support for aging societies. Thus, it is important to encourage older people to participate in the labor markets, and to instil in young people the skills they will need for later – much later – in life.

“How do we change what we are teaching today for tomorrow?” asks Vanhuysse. The answer lies in fostering more creative, flexible mindsets as opposed to factual knowledge in our populations.

One thing we must do, he said, is avoid creating too many specialists early in education. 

Vanhuysse cites Isaiah Berlin’s essay on foxes and hedgehogs, explaining that society may need more adaptable minds: “Foxes are very versatile — they do many things. They change direction, but they can adapt to different things. Hedgehogs slowly but surely do one thing. They do it well, but it’s one narrow path they follow. Perhaps we need to think about creating more foxes among the 14- and 15-year-olds
of today.”

While economists may focus on more empirical or data-driven trends, he views the dialogue with those from participants in other sectors as a key feature of the session. Economists and political scientists may not discuss notions of dialogue, respect, and reciprocity on a daily basis, but he realises the benefits of such gatherings.

“The general strength of Salzburg Global Seminar…is to really bring interested, curious people form very different walks of life — both in terms of where they come from but also how they think — together for open-minded, liberal discussion.”


Pieter Vanhuysse was a participant at Aging Societies: Advancing Innovation and Equity, which is part of the multi-year series Designing a Social Compact for the 21st Century. The session is being hosted in partnership with Wirtschaftskammer Österreich and is sponsored by TIAA-CREF Financial Services and Tsao Foundation. More information on the session can be found here: www.salzburgglobal.org/go/540. For more information on Designing a Social Compact for the 21st Century, please visit: socialcompact.salzburgglobal.org