Since the end of World War II, the world’s population has not only gotten vastly bigger; it has also become vastly more educated. In nearly every country on earth, the total number of years that citizens have attended school has grown faster than the population itself, and the number of college degrees conferred has grown even faster. Although population growth is now slowing almost everywhere (and depopulation is an emerging reality for some countries), the overall pace of educational expansion will remain much faster than natural population growth as far into the future as a demographer’s eye can see.

Education is a crucial component of human capital and, by extension, of national might. A better-educated citizenry means a more productive economy and thus greater military potential. But because the educational explosion of the last 70 years has been uneven—some countries have made greater strides than others, and the pace of progress has varied over time—this dramatic transformation hasn’t just increased the overall size of the global economy. It has also shifted the distribution of economic potential among countries, including great powers. 

Comparatively speaking, Western nations, including the United States, have been the biggest losers in this great reshuffling of educational and economic heft, as we detail in a recent report for the American Enterprise Institute. During the Cold War, the United States was the uncontested education superpower; Americans enjoyed the world’s highest levels of educational attainment and accounted for far more of the world’s highly educated workforce than any other country. But that epoch is now history. An increasing number of countries are overtaking the United States in educational attainment, when measured by mean years of schooling, and it will soon cede its first-place ranking in college-educated workers to China. Sometime in the next two decades, India may also surpass the United States in total numbers of working-age men and women with higher education.

Such changes reflect major shifts in the international environment that have occurred over the past generation and foreshadow still others that will shape the world order in the decades ahead. Whether the United States can weather these changes without forfeiting its position of economic and military dominance will depend in part on its ability to recognize and address the ominous stagnation in its classrooms and lecture halls. That will require thinking creatively about partnerships and alliances with tomorrow’s centers of educational excellence—whether in Asia or in the United States’ backyard—and getting serious about reversing the unwelcome trends in U.S. education that policymakers have overlooked for more than a generation.

SMARTER WORLD

Scholars and strategists have long understood that nations draw strength from their populations. Until recently, however, most have focused on head counts: numbers of people, broken down by age and sex, inhabiting different countries or alliances. But that simple approach makes little sense in a world where people from some countries have much greater economic potential than people from others. Switzerland has fewer residents than Burundi, for instance, but its GDP per capita is more than 90 times greater.

In an era when a single person’s productivity in one country can be greater than that of 90 people in another, human productivity will increasingly affect the global balance of power. Productivity, in turn, is driven primarily by improvements in human capital—in health, knowledge, skills, and other intrinsically human factors. Rapid but sharply differential increases in human capital can open wide productivity gaps between countries, including between great powers, in just a few decades. One of the most important ingredients in human capital is education: more specifically, the sheer quantity of schooling received by national populations. Overwhelming evidence shows that more schooling means more productive potential at the national level, regardless of how high or low a nation’s baseline level of educational attainment.

Two projects have sought to chart the postwar educational explosion around the globe, and their findings offer clues about its effect on the international balance of power: the Human Capital Data Explorer, published by the Vienna-based Wittgenstein Centre for Demography and Human Capital, and the Barro-Lee Educational Attainment Dataset, run by Harvard University’s Robert Barro and Korea University’s Jong-Wha Lee. The Wittgenstein research provides estimates of the world’s overall demographic and educational profile from 1950 to 2020, with projections up to 2100, while Barro and Lee’s work offers educational attainment estimates for 146 countries from 1950 to 2040. The assessments of these two projects are close but not identical, and we rely on data from both.

Educational progress over the last 70 years has been profound. The global share of adults who have received no schooling dropped from about 45 percent in 1950 to about 13 percent in 2020, and the Wittgenstein Centre projects that that figure could fall to eight percent by 2040. Between 1950 and 2020, the mean years of schooling for people aged 15 and older worldwide steadily rose from 3.7 years to 8.8 years—almost a two-and-a-half-fold increase. Around the world, average levels of adult schooling in 2020 were nearly five and a half years above what they were in 1950. That amounts to a long-term pace of improvement of over 0.7 years per decade, a rate that is projected to continue at a slightly slower tempo over the next 20 years.

Western nations have been the biggest losers in the great reshuffling of educational heft.

These advances have occurred despite significant headwinds created by the shifting composition of global population. In 1950, the world’s less developed regions—where educational attainment remains lowest—accounted for two-thirds of the global population; today they account for five-sixths of the world’s population and virtually all the population growth projected for the next two decades. The countries with the most rapidly increasing populations tend to be those with the lowest baseline levels of schooling, meaning that their weight in the total global composition is steadily growing—and pulling down the global average for education.

Worldwide, the average level of educational attainment is now slightly above a completed grade-school education. If that sounds low, it is because expectations and norms in the developed world are very different today from what they were only a few decades ago. The current mean years of schooling for adults globally is roughly the same as the U.S. mean in the 1950s—a time when the United States led the world in educational attainment. That fact reflects a remarkable degree of convergence between nations: mean years of schooling levels have risen much more rapidly in poorly educated regions (mainly Africa, Asia, and Latin America) than in highly educated regions of Europe and North America. In other words, as global educational attainment has increased, educational inequality between nations has decreased—and is projected to continue to do so. According to Barro and Lee, inequality in mean years of schooling for the global adult population has dropped by as much as 60 percent over the last 70 years, and it could fall by another third between now and 2040.

The dramatic increase in educational attainment has been accompanied by a similarly dramatic increase in productivity. All else being equal, every additional mean year of schooling for a country tracks with about a ten percent increase in its level of per capita output, even where educational levels are already relatively high. This strong relationship is perhaps even more striking given the imperfect nature of this measure of educational attainment, which does not account for differences in the quality of schooling across countries or time. Around the world, educational advancement has helped power tremendous gains in income and living standards. Between 1950 and 2018, global per capita GDP more than quadrupled, growing at an estimated 2.2 percent per year. Our analysis suggests that increased schooling accounted for roughly a third of that productivity improvement—with gains in health, urbanization, and business climate accounting for most of the rest.

But if increasing educational attainment has auspicious implications for human welfare and individual well-being, it has very different implications for geopolitics and international security. The same educational convergence that has reduced global inequality and lifted millions out of poverty has steadily eroded the advantages once enjoyed by the global leaders in educational attainment—in particular, the United States.

RISE OF THE REST

After mean years of schooling, the next most important quantitative indicator of educational attainment is advanced training: postsecondary, college, graduate education, and the like. The number and share of people with higher education matters for both national economic and geopolitical potential, since highly skilled labor is important in an industrial economy and indispensable in a knowledge-intensive, postindustrial economy.

Globally, postwar growth in higher education has been extraordinary. In 1950, according to the Wittgenstein Centre, roughly 30 million people around the world aged 15 or older had completed some higher education; by 2020, that number had exceeded 930 million, and it is projected to top 1.5 billion by 2040. Meanwhile, the share of the global adult population with at least some graduate education leaped from under two percent in 1950 to about 16 percent today and will approach 22 percent by 2040. Higher education is not yet the global norm, nor will it be in 20 years—but it is becoming more common every year.

Today, the United States is on the cusp of losing its preeminent status in skilled labor.

From the standpoint of national economic performance, the educational attainment of men and women aged 25 to 64 is key; this cohort accounts for most of the labor force and the overwhelming majority of highly skilled workers in all modern societies. Both the Wittgenstein and the Barro-Lee datasets reveal the rapid worldwide growth for this essential group: in 1950, the world had barely 25 million people between the ages of 25 and 64 with at least some higher education. By 1990, that number had grown almost tenfold, to roughly 230 million. Since then, it appears to have tripled again; according to the Wittgenstein Centre’s estimates, today’s total is approaching 750 million, and by 2040 it will be nearly 1.2 billion.

Even in countries where the working-age population is declining, the pool of highly skilled working-age men and women is set to grow in the next decades—but not as fast as in other places. The explosion in higher education is redistributing the share of highly educated workers across the world, potentially affecting the balance of power among nations.

These postwar trends have consigned Western countries to severe and continuing relative decline when it comes to their share of the globe’s highly skilled workforce, knocking former Western heavyweights out of the world’s top ten, one after another. In 1950, eight of the ten largest highly educated workforces were in more developed countries—India and China being the two exceptions. By 2020, just five developed countries were still in the top ten, joined by newcomers Brazil, Indonesia, and South Korea. By 2040, just three highly developed countries are projected to make the list: Japan, Russia, and the United States.

The emerging economies that will challenge or surpass Western nations in the decades ahead are now achieving higher levels of educational attainment than most advanced Western economies did in the early postwar era. For example, 16 percent of 24- to 64-year-olds in Mexico are college educated—roughly twice the U.S. rate in 1950—and in Turkey, the share of this age cohort with some higher education is 22 percent, close to Germany’s share at unification in 1990. South Korea’s workforce is even more skilled, and its transformation over the last half century has been truly astounding. In 1970, barely five percent of its working-age population had college degrees. Half a century later, the country has likely crossed the 50 percent mark—outpacing the United States and other erstwhile educational attainment leaders. By 2040, nearly two-thirds of South Korean workers could have college degrees and three-quarters could have at least some higher education. It is a trajectory that other aspiring powers seek to replicate. If they succeed, they will dramatically alter the global distribution of human capital. 

BIG FIVE

When it comes to highly educated populations, five countries have dominated the rest of the world over the last 70 years: China, India, Japan, Russia, and the United States. Scale is a prerequisite for membership in this club; it is hardly a coincidence that the world’s largest highly skilled labor forces—today and likely well into the future—are so populous. The global share of highly educated working-age people residing in these five countries has remained mostly stable over time, accounting for around half the world’s total from 1950 to the present. But the educational trajectories of the big five vary tremendously, and their shifting weights within the world’s high-skill labor force portend momentous geopolitical changes.

Throughout the Cold War, the United States was in a league of its own. From 1950 to 1990, the sheer magnitude of its highly educated workforce meant that it had no close competitors. China, India, Japan, and Russia were all roughly comparable on this metric and a far cry from the United States. Of course, during these years, the Kremlin commanded the Soviet Union, not just the part of it that would become today’s Russia. But by our estimates, the Soviet Union never managed to amass even a third of the United States’ highly skilled workforce at any point in its existence.  

The end of the Cold War saw a reshuffling of the big five, as India and China surged ahead of Japan and Russia in terms of the size of their highly educated workforces, powered in part by their much larger populations. But the United States held strong as the biggest repository of skilled labor, despite its much smaller population.

China’s transformation since the end of the Cold War has been stunning.

Today, however, the United States is on the cusp of losing its preeminent status in skilled labor; China will soon overtake it (if it hasn’t already) as India likely will sometime before 2040. India began rapidly closing the highly educated labor gap with the United States in the late 1990s. Back then, India’s labor pool of college graduates was a third the size of that of the United States. Now, it is roughly two-thirds the size.

China’s transformation since the end of the Cold War has been no less stunning. In 1990, the country’s college-educated labor pool may have been the smallest of the big five. Since then, however, that segment of its workforce has exploded—a consequence, as in India, of demographic and developmental trends already in the making. Today, China’s population of college graduates aged 25 to 64 is between 80 and 90 percent of that of the United States. Barro and Lee have projected that China could have more working-age college graduates than the United States by 2025 and that its highly educated labor pool could be more than double the United States’ by 2040. That year, Barro and Lee have projected that India could overtake the United States in terms of its total number of college-educated 25- to 64-year-olds (see Figure 1).

Another way to look at the changing fortunes of the big five is to trace their past and projected shares of the world’s highly educated workers between 1950 and 2040. Such a comparison vividly highlights the United States’ relative decline (see Figure 2). In 1950, the United States accounted for over 40 percent of the world’s college-educated workers; by 1990, its share had fallen to about 27 percent. Today, the U.S. share sits at about 16 percent—and is projected to fall as low as ten percent by 2040, against 11 percent for India and 13 percent for China, according to the Wittgenstein Centre. Roughly similar trends are evident for workers with only some higher education.

Interestingly, although the U.S. totals for highly educated workers fall far behind the Chinese totals in these projections, the combined totals of highly educated workers in Canada, Mexico, and the United States do not. Indeed, it is possible that this swath of North America covered by the North American Free Trade Agreement and its successor, the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, will maintain a highly educated workforce roughly the same size as China’s until at least 2040. Credit here goes largely to educational gains in Mexico.

THE GREAT STAGNATION

The long-term educational rise and ultimate ascendance of China and India in higher education head counts should not come as a surprise. Nor should the United States’ long-term relative decline. Indeed, the only way that the United States might have maintained its early postwar educational edge into the twenty-first century would have been as a consequence of catastrophe: global failure to develop, worldwide mortality setbacks, or both.

What should surprise—and dismay—American observers is the remarkably poor educational performance that hastened the United States’ relative deterioration. Growth in the mean years of schooling for Americans in their late 20s is barely a third of what it was in the early postwar era, and growth in the cohort of working-age college graduates has sharply slowed when compared with the early postwar period. Amazingly, college graduation rates for American men in their late 20s flatlined from the mid 1970s to the early years of the twenty-first century—an alarming peacetime performance somehow overlooked by academics and policymakers alike (see Figure 3).

This broad educational slowdown has not occurred because Americans are so overeducated that they have hit an attainment ceiling. To the contrary, a growing roster of East Asian and European societies have surpassed the United States in either mean years of schooling or rates of postsecondary training for workers aged 25 to 34. Australia, Ireland, South Korea, and Switzerland, among others, have done so, but their small population size has prevented them from challenging the absolute educational dominance of the big five. In other words, the United States can do better. And although it may not be able to prevent China and India from surpassing its highly educated workforce, it can postpone the date at which this happens—possibly by decades.

BACK FROM THE BRINK

Just as it transformed the global economy in the last century, the worldwide explosion in education is set to transform geopolitics in this one. Over the next two decades, more people are likely to enter the world’s highly educated labor pool than did in the previous two decades—or ever before. By 2040, there could be 250 million more working-age college graduates in the global workforce than there are today—a jump of 70 percent—and almost half a billion more people with at least some higher education.

From the standpoint of global prosperity, the postwar educational explosion has been an unmitigated boon, helping fuel a near quintupling of worldwide GDP per capita since 1950. Although those gains in income and wealth have by no means been equally shared, nearly all humanity has nevertheless benefited from them: falling poverty, growing life expectancies, and improving well-being are all partly due to educational advances.

From the standpoint of geopolitics, however, the consequences of the educational explosion are less propitious, at least for the United States. The surge of highly educated people into the global workforce has shifted the balance of economic power and, by extension, military power among countries, undercutting the United States’ primacy. For the first three postwar generations, the United States’ college-educated workforce was unmatched in terms of size, giving the country a powerful economic advantage that helped sustain it during and immediately after the Cold War. Today, it is neck and neck with China in total highly trained workers, with India closing in. By 2040, China and India will be vying for the lead in total highly trained labor, with the United States a distant third.

The erosion of the United States’ educational edge will eventually weaken the country’s global reach.

To be clear, there is no reason to presume that Chinese or Indian higher education will be of the same quality as that in the United States. And the United States will still be able to count on many other assets that reinforce its global advantage: among others, its prowess in research and technological development, its dynamic business sector, its sophisticated financial system, and its dominant currency. But these realities should only afford a limited measure of consolation in the face of otherwise troubling educational trends.

The erosion of the United States’ educational edge will eventually weaken the country’s global reach. With a less highly educated workforce than it could or should have, the United States will have less economic, political, and military heft with which to defend its interests and uphold the economic and security architecture that has defined the postwar order. Eventually, Pax Americana will come under pressure. It is not hard to imagine a progressively less peaceable and more economically insecure international environment in which the United States has much less influence as a result of its stagnating pool of high-skilled labor.

Fortunately, the United States still has good options for coping with loss of educational hegemony. But they all require Washington to take initiative—something it seems unaccustomed to lately. Through more active and imaginative diplomacy, the United States could seek to forge new coalitions or alliances that would add human resource ballast to the liberal order. This might entail patient cultivation of new security partnerships with some of tomorrow’s major centers of highly educated labor: India, Indonesia, Vietnam—maybe even Iran. Other intriguing possibilities include a closer integration of Canada, Mexico, and the United States, which might bring North America’s strategic potential more in line with its tremendous demographic and economic potential.

Meanwhile, the United States could attempt to reverse its ominous educational slowdown. Stagnation in educational attainment is impeding economic growth and likely robbing the United States of trillions of dollars in output each year—a price that will only rise if the United States doesn’t shift course. Part of the problem is that Americans do not want to buy a lot of what U.S. educators want to sell, and it is hard to blame them. The quality of public primary and secondary schooling is woefully uneven, and a high school diploma does not always come with marketable skills. Higher education is increasingly bureaucratized, ideological, and expensive. If Americans treated education as if their future depended on it, they would look for far-reaching overhauls, not marginal changes, and they would look beyond teachers’ unions and university administrators for better ideas. Revitalizing the country’s human resources—not just educational attainment, but health, workforce participation, and even family—will increasingly be strategic imperatives for the United States.

The coming demographic and educational changes are predictable. But they are not entirely inevitable, and they are unfolding slowly. The United States has time to adapt and address its educational shortcomings before it is too late. To avoid squandering its educational edge and putting its position of global primacy at risk, however, Washington must acknowledge that education is no longer just a domestic policy issue but a national security issue on which the very future of the United States depends.

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  • NICHOLAS EBERSTADT is Henry Wendt Chair in Political Economy at the American Enterprise Institute.
  • EVAN ABRAMSKY is a former Senior Research Associate in International Political Economy at the American Enterprise Institute.
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