Not Waving, But Drowning

At the Daily BeastMegan McArdle sees college as the American middle class’s last desperate bet for economic security in the fast-shifting global economy:

If employers have mostly been using college degrees to weed out the inept and the unmotivated, then getting more people into college simply means more competition for a limited number of well-paying jobs. And in the current environment, that means a lot of people borrowing money for jobs they won’t get.

But we keep buying because after two decades prudent Americans who want a little financial security don’t have much left. Lifetime employment, and the pensions that went with it, have now joined outhouses, hitching posts, and rotary-dial telephones as something that wide-eyed children may hear about from their grandparents but will never see for themselves. The fabulous stock-market returns that promised an alternative form of protection proved even less durable. At least we have the house, weary Americans told each other, and the luckier ones still do, as they are reminded every time their shaking hand writes out another check for a mortgage that’s worth more than the home that secures it. What’s left is … investing in ourselves. Even if we’re not such a good bet. […]

In Academically Adrift, their recent study of undergraduate learning, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa find that at least a third of students gain no measurable skills during their four years in college. For the remainder who do, the gains are usually minimal. For many students, college is less about providing an education than a credential—a certificate testifying that they are smart enough to get into college, conformist enough to go, and compliant enough to stay there for four years.

When I read McArdle’s reflections above, I can’t help but think of the Confucian guilds of China 500 years ago, by which rigorous exams were used, not to locate talent for economic growth, but to identify in a tight job market the smartest and most obedient managers for perpetuating a stagnant system.

I also think of politics. In a fast globalizing world, middle class populations are desperate for some protection from the viscitudes of markets and will vote for politicians who promise them something (from police and military protection on the right to healthcare and free education on the left). The irony, of course, is that governments in a globalized economy have little maneuvering room to provide these things. If they run high debts, their credit ratings are harmed on global bond markets. If taxes are too high, they hurt the private sector’s competitiveness. If they try, through regulations, to protect populations from things like pollution, this too harms global competitiveness.

Has it always been this cold?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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4 Responses to Not Waving, But Drowning

  1. Marlen says:

    Equal money system

  2. Alan says:

    This too, shall pass.
    Back in the sixties, the major unions in the US took a very deliberate stand of Not helping foreign workers organize – let them go through their own bloody fights for recognition. Without collective recognition, their progress towards a living wage with even marginal benefits will be slow. In a world with minimum war to force isolation, manufacturers can take advantage of under-organized labor and move jobs away from high-overhead neighborhoods. Sooner or later, the labor in China, et. all, will be able to demand better wages and benefits as well, relieving much of the pressure on first world labor. The only sure way to improve the lives of first world young adults (or any of the rest of us) is to improve the lives of everyone else! This is a part of the price of peace. Enjoy what it means to not fight.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Well, that’s quite a challenge, but what does it mean, in policy terms, NOW?

      One thing that may change the equation is oil costs–if the world hits peak oil for real, and a gallon of gas climbs to ten dollars or more, national manufacturing may revive out of necessity and suburban people will move to cities.

      As to what can be done now, this may sound utopian, but I’m thinking the key is to train people in how to be entrepreneurs. In other words, the skills every student should leave college with (in addition to cultural and intellectual capital, critical thinking, and discipline specific sklls) are entrepreneurial skills. That is, they should think of themselves as having the power to create their own jobs if they can’t find a job, and know how to do that.

      They’ll have to believe in and invest in themselves and trust their own creativity and intelligence to win at the harsh game of survival, and teachers can help them along this difficult path.


      • Alan says:

        Aye! A most excellent approach with long term benefits! The world will ever be competitive, we must learn to react creatively and constructively!
        I would have said that what we most need is motivation (in part, harder working workers), but direction (working smarter and motivated towards a useful goal) is equally important and harder to acquire!

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