Leading Others Over A Cliff—and Better Alternatives
Everyone knows about the lemmings, the small Scandinavian rodents who migrate en masse and sometimes go over cliffs together to their deaths. According to Wikipedia, they behave that way when their population density gets too high and their biological urges force them to move on to a new habitat. They are able to swim, and they do not intentionally commit suicide by going over the cliffs. It just makes a big difference what awaits at the bottom of the cliff, whether rocks or seas. They are not the rodent versions of Thelma and Louise. They just have to migrate, even if it means going over a cliff to seek survival.
American society—and especially higher education—is facing a thing called “the demographic cliff” in 2026, and leaders in all sectors need to prepare their organizations for it. Japan already plunged over such a cliff years ago, and the entire developed world, including one-child China, faces a serious decline in birth rates. America kept a pretty healthy birth rate for a long time, but the Great Recession that began in 2007 led to a 15% decline in births in 2008. That smaller cohort of babies turns 18 in 2026, and so, colleges will face a 15% decline in freshmen in 2026 (even taking immigration into account). In the Northeastern United States, that number will decline by a whopping 40%! And that’s not all (as the TV bargain hawkers are wont to say). The prestigious selective schools will not drop in enrollment at all, as they will just accept, say, 10% of their applicants instead of 8%. Regional state universities and small-endowment private schools will suffer enrollment declines that could possibly put them out of business or reduce them to boutique versions of their current state.
And not only that—the birthrate never recovered. Colleges will face a long chain of small freshman cohorts that shows no signs of ending. They should take no comfort in the fact that they will not go over the cliff alone. Public schools have already greeted the smaller cohorts for over a decade, and EVERY INSTITUTION IN AMERICAN SOCIETY will eventually feel the demographic crunch, perhaps at the rocky bottom of the cliff.
So how should organizational leaders plan to lead their institutions over the cliff? I once went over a dam in a canoe with my brother, and I remember the exact point when I realized that, try as we might, there was no way we were going to avoid going over the dam. I wound up in the hospital getting stitches in my face. I have the scars to prove it and remember it every time I look in the mirror.
So I know a little about going over a waterfall, and I can tell you that it is better than going over a cliff. So Principle #1 for leading an organization over a cliff counsels leaders to prepare mentally for the event. At Northwest University, we have rebranded the cliff as a waterfall. You can’t survive going over a cliff, but going over a waterfall can offer quite an exciting adventure. Approaching a fall with the wrong attitude and mindset will guarantee disaster. I believe in seeing life as an adventure, and we’ve got a doozy coming!
Great adventures require careful preparation. In planning a whitewater rafting trip, you want to be sure to maximize the buoyancy of your vessel (Principle #2), choose protective gear (Principle #3), and train your team (Principle #4) on what to do when the raft goes over the edge. Colleges facing the “demographic waterfall,” must choose new sources of revenue and students and programs and services to provide buoyancy when the things they have always done can no longer provide the same institutional resources. As readers learn about new programs and emphases at Northwest University in the next five years, they might imagine the word “buoyancy” written on every one of them. Protective gear includes helmets and pads on a whitewater adventure, but in an organization, one form of protection for demographic decline involves building strong financial reserves while times remain good (think Joseph and the Seven Fat Cows). That requires more than fundraising. Careful, sternly determined budgeting will ensure that financial resources do not get wasted on ineffective, inefficient, or unnecessary programs and procedures. Technology upgrades can form an important part of increasing efficiency.
Most importantly, leaders facing a cliff must carefully prepare their teams to enjoy the thrill of survival. At Northwest University, we place a great deal of importance on building a happy workplace environment. In any organization, a healthy community of workers offers vital protection in times of challenge. In the next five years, we will carefully explain how new programs and practices prepare us for a thriving future. We will keep providing training to our people so that they know how to use the tools and methods that will stabilize our vessel as we hit the rapids and then take the plunge of 2026.
Denying the problem guarantees a death plunge over a cliff. Preparing to take the fall offers excitement about a thrilling future. As a leader at Northwest, I want our people far more enthusiastic about our new technology and computer science majors and new healthcare programs and our Ready to Work program (the Career Readiness Initiative) and major new administrative upgrades and talented new teammates and an upcoming, thrilling fundraising campaign and other plans we will roll out over the next five years. I hope this reflection on what we plan to do about the “Demographic Waterfall” will stimulate other leaders to think about how to face inevitable challenges and lead their organizations over the cliff with confidence.