breaking habits

Reading this post by Jonathan V. Last, I find myself meditating on the role that habit plays in our choices of activity, in small things and large. Last looks at two elements of our current economy — the conglomeration of entertainment options that we call “Las Vegas” and the movie-theater industry — and asks how they can possibly survive the current economic crisis in anything like their current form.

I’ve also been reading many reflections on the future of higher education in America, most of which acknowledge that the current situation is simply accelerating the arrival of a crisis we have long known is coming: fewer American young people. “Nathan Grawe, an economist at Carleton College in Minnesota, predicts that the college-going population will drop by 15 percent between 2025 and 2029 and continue to decline by another percentage point or two thereafter.”

All of this has me wondering about the future, of course, but it also has me thinking about the role of habit in our voluntary pursuits. The biggest concern for the movie-theater companies ought to be this: What happens when people get out of the habit of going out to see first-run movies and instead develop the habit of seeing first-run movies at home? What happens when streaming a new release on your TV is the normal thing to do? My guess is that for many people going out to the movies will eventually feel like a chore, and the movie industry will need to adapt to new preferences. It seems likely to me that the theaters that will survive into the new era will be places like Alamo Drafthouse, oriented towards foodie-cinephiles. And I sure hope Alamo survives, because man do I love going there.

I tend to think that Las Vegas will bounce back, because going to Vegas is, for most people anyway, not a regular habit but an occasional festivity. But a lot will depend on how people feel, long-term, about getting on airplanes. And this is one of Last’s points: so many of our industries are entangled with other industries that it’s impossible to calculate how all the dominoes will fall. (Which isn’t stopping journalists from making confident predictions.)

But about higher education … obviously the stakes are much higher there: the choice of what university to attend is widely believed to be one of the most important a person will make in his or her life. But that assumes that you will choose one, and I find myself wondering whether attending a university at all is a practice that is subject to change in our new circumstances. That is, for many millions of American high-graduates, and for several generations now, going to college has not been perceived as a choice but rather as an inevitability. Nor “whether” but only “where.” It’s hard for me to imagine that in the coming years it won’t also become a “whether.”

Everyone assumes that this fall there will be a significant rise in high-school graduates deferring their college enrollment and taking a gap year. It is easy to imagine circumstances in which this becomes more commonplace, not just for the next year or two, but permanently. And, further, it is easy to imagine a significant number of those gap-year students finding jobs that they are not eager to give up in order to go to college. Further still, one can conceive of circumstances in which certain industries that flourish in an altered environment, industries that had previously chiefly hired people with college degrees, realize that their employees don’t really need college degrees. That is to say, it’s not hard to envision a future in which young people and employers alike realize that higher education has become a habit, and a habit one can break.

A big part of me doesn’t want to see this happen, because I have been involved in higher education since I started college at age 16, and I love this little world. Plus, I have many, many friends who are professors, or who work in other capacities in colleges and universities, and I worry about their future. But if I could set all that aside — which I can’t, quite — I believe I would think that, over the long haul, a significant lowering of the number of young Americans who attend university would be a social good. And I hope it will be, because I think that’s what’s coming.

I would love to live in a world in which higher education continues to flourish and the charms of Las Vegas wane. I think I’m living in the opposite of that world.