Monday, June 20, 2011

No One Need Apply, Part Two

CNN recently ran an article about the employment situation in Zimbabwe.  Apparently, the position of hangman has been vacant for years, but plenty of people are interested in it, just to guarantee a regular paycheck.  I don't know the social attitude toward capital punishment in Zimbabwe, but it seems clear that the social attitude toward being unemployed shares an awful lot with the United States, as large numbers of people take jobs well below their professional skill level and education just to get by.  One reason for the riots in Tunisia was a large class of former college students that were unable to find any work related to their education.

I've been waiting for some years for the "higher education bubble" to burst in America.  Millions of young adults head off to college, still armed with the out of date mindset of a generation before (get a degree, someone will give you a job), all-too-willing to accept decades of debt slavery based on student loans underwritten with bad government debt.  Four years later, or maybe six or eight, these same young adults find themselves with an inescapable debt (bankruptcy laws don't apply) and fewer and fewer job prospects.  At my local chain bookstore, the staff consists largely of English majors who weren't able to find anything else but a minimum-wage job working a register and finding books on a shelf.  This isn't necessarily confined to degrees which don't directly translate to professional training, either -- plenty of people with accounting degrees, law degrees, etc, are facing increasingly poor employment prospects. 

There's a tendency to play the "blame the victim" game here, that people should've known that things sometimes come with strings attached and that there's no guarantee of success.  However, what prospective students didn't realize -- and what our civilization as a whole is still failing to comprehend -- that the ground has shifted beneath their feet, that the world which they were raised in, and people still believe in, simply doesn't exist anymore.  Lots of things are clear in the rearview, but maybe not so much when they're around the next corner. 

It does beg the question of how things will change socially, as we have an increasingly large educated class with little hope of success or life beyond trying to figure out how to pay their minimum loan payments and not find themselves arrested for not coming up with the cash to Sallie Mae or whoever.  Will we see a generation of "refuseniks" arise, who simply don't pay back their loans and form communities around this common burden?  Or will they form political action groups to try to have mass student loan forgiveness?  In an age when we're willing to bail out banks and given planeloads (literally) of dollars to foreign dicators, the latter idea doesn't seem so outlandish.  Finally, will they be primary contributors to political disruption and mass dissent?

If anything, we can see that when the collapse of our systems is in the offing, then like the chaos of a collapsing universe, all sorts of new patterns emerge and things which were once unthinkable become commonplace.  This was the view when the Soviet Union was headed off the edge of the cliff and it wasn't unheard of for soldiers occupying Eastern Europe to be picking over the refuse in garbage dumps for the essentials of life.  It doesn't take much speculation to see that we're on the same track and that, if anything, we flew a lot higher and have a lot farther to fall before it's all over.


  1. I graduated in 1992, so I was one of the first classes to experience the "you graduated from college? No jobs for you! Thanks for staying out of the labor market for four years!" thing. I'm pretty amazed about the scam that has been pulled here. Essentially a college degree now is the equivalent of a high school degree thirty years ago, and is viewed by employers as much. The problem is that if you don't have a college degree, its like not having a high school degree thirty years ago! We have the same situation as if we just started charging people tons of money and forcing them into debt just to finish high school.

    Eventually employers will demand so much from their current and prospective work forces, in terms of acquiring credentials from the latter and various amounts of stress from the former, that entering and staying in the world of "normal" work will just become too costly. I'm not sure what will happen after that. Now I am considering having a kid, and the only reason I would do so at this point would be in hope that the college bubble will pop by the time he is around eighteen.

  2. Ed,

    You are spot-on with your analysis of degree inflation. Most professions really don't require the education that the "entry ticket" specifies. The other problem is that we've steadily seen a drop in respect for autodidactism (to where Blogger's spellchecker doesn't even recognize the word). We assume that people can't learn on their own and trust "professionals" to teach them, meaning that there is little market-based incentive for colleges to drop their prices or otherwise alter what's steadily become a vicious monopoly.

    That said, I wouldn't let college affect a personal and important decision like having a child. For one thing, your child would already benefit from having a parent who doesn't follow the herd when it comes to thinking -- free, critical, thought being one of the few gifts a parent can give a child that has any meaning to it at all. Another is that the love and relationship a parent shares with a child is an irreplaceable thing, if the parent has their priorities straight.

    And, for what it's worth, I think the college bubble's days are numbered...


  3. Good evening,
    the loan to study (a.k.a. pay university fees) is a totally idiot and classist thing.
    Education should be free and state programmed. May be a selection based on skills should apply but nothing else.
    It's so much inconceivable to think that a youth should acquire a loan to pay for his education, it is the state that should totally support the education system since progress for any society comes from science and philosophy taught in its own education system.
    The loan to study system is another evil effect of " Nixon's out of Bretton Woods turbo-capitalism", aimed at the sole scope to win the cold war against Soviet Union.
    The FIAT money strategy is now at its end but the ideals of socialism are still alive.

  4. Markus,

    In a perfect world, having a free education would be ideal, and I think we're starting to realize that we can't afford these things.

    With regard to class...people want to join the "educated" class, so they think that spending time and money for four or eight years will make them educated. Real education comes from an understanding of materials, not from listening to a bored professor drone on and on, then figuring out how to out-smart (or out-cheat) a test. Of course, status depends on what other people say about you, not what you say about yourself, so a piece of paper is still in high demand.

    Fiat money is quite clearly dead, and we still have people hanging on to the idea that it means something. The Weimar republic is too far in the rearview for people to take those lessons to heart, I guess.