ONTD Political

The Dwindling Power of a College Degree

7:48 pm - 11/27/2011
The 2012 presidential election can be seen as offering a choice between two visions of how to return us to this country’s golden age — from roughly 1945 to around 1973 — when working life was most secure for many Americans, particularly white, middle-class men. President Obama said his jobs plan was for people who believed “if you worked hard and played by the rules, you would be rewarded.” Mitt Romney explained his goal was to restore hope for “folks who grew up believing that if they played by the rules . . . they would have the chance to build a good life.” But these days, many workers have lost a near guarantee on a decent wage and benefits — and their careers are likely to have much more volatility (great years; bad years; confusing, mediocre years) than their parents’ ever did. So when did the rules change?

It has been hard to keep track. Over the past four decades, we have experienced the oil embargo, Carter-era malaise and a few recessions. Mixed in were the thrills of the late 1990s and mid-aughts, when it seemed as if you were a sap if you weren't getting rich or at least trying. But these dramas prevented many of us from realizing that the economic logic was changing fundamentally. Starting in the 1970s, labor was upended by a lot more than just formal government work rules. Increased global trade devastated workers in many industries, especially textiles, apparel, toys, furniture and electronics assembly. Computers and other technological innovations had an arguably greater impact. While factories continue to make more stuff in the United States than ever before, employment in them has collapsed.

Computers have hurt workers outside factories too. Picture the advertising agency in "Mad Men," and think about the abundance of people who were hired to do jobs that are now handled electronically by small machines. Countless secretaries were replaced by word processing, voice mail, e-mail and scheduling software; accounting staff by Excel; people in the art department by desktop design programs. This is also true of trades like plumbing and carpentry, in which new technologies replaced a bunch of people who most likely stood around helping measure things and making sure everything worked correctly.

As a result, the people whose jobs remained valuable in that “Mad Men” office were then freed up to do more valuable things. A talented art director could produce more work more quickly with InDesign. A bright accountant could spend more time thinking of new ways to make and save money, rather than spending endless hours punching numbers into an adding machine. Global trade works much the same way. It’s horrible news for a textile factory worker in North Carolina, but it may be great for a fashion designer in New York.

A general guideline these days is that people are rewarded when they can do things that take trained judgment and skill — things, in other words, that can’t be done by computers or lower-wage workers in other countries. Money now flows around the world so quickly, and technology changes so fast, that people who thought they were in high demand find themselves uprooted. Many newspaper reporters have learned that their work was subsidized, in part, by classified ads and now can’t survive the rise of Craigslist; computer programmers have found out that some smart young guys in India will do their jobs for much less. Meanwhile, China lends so much money to the United States that mortgage brokers and bond traders can become richer than they ever imagined for a few years and then, just as quickly, become broke and unemployed.

One of the greatest changes is that a college degree is no longer the guarantor of a middle-class existence. Until the early 1970s, less than 11 percent of the adult population graduated from college, and most of them could get a decent job. Today nearly a third have college degrees, and a higher percentage of them graduated from nonelite schools. A bachelor’s degree on its own no longer conveys intelligence and capability. To get a good job, you have to have some special skill — charm, by the way, counts — that employers value. But there’s also a pretty good chance that by some point in the next few years, your boss will find that some new technology or some worker overseas can replace you.

Though it’s no guarantee, a B.A. or some kind of technical training is at least a prerequisite for a decent salary. It’s hard to see any great future for high-school dropouts or high-school graduates with no technical skills. They most often get jobs that require little judgment and minimal training, like stocking shelves, cooking burgers and cleaning offices. Employers generally see these unskilled workers as commodities — one is as good as any other — and thus each worker has very little bargaining power, especially now that unions are weaker. There are about 40 million of these low-skilled people in our work force. They’re vying for jobs that are likely to earn near the minimum wage with few or no benefits, and they have a high chance of being laid off many times in a career.

Global trade and technology are significant trends, but they’re not laws and policies. The actual rules have also changed notably since the 1970s. Back then, there were all sorts of stabilizers that pushed working-class wages up and kept rich people’s wages lower. The minimum wage, at its pre-1970s peak, was almost 50 percent higher than it is now (inflation adjusted, naturally). Unions were stronger and had more government support. The United States taxed the rich much higher relative to the working class. (The top bracket was taxed at 70 percent in 1978; now it’s 35 percent.) It’s hard to imagine, but regulations largely limited the profitability of banks and kept bankers’ financial compensation low.

The new rules, combined with the other major changes, have effectively removed both the floor and the ceiling. It’s easier for some to make a lot more money and for others to fall much further behind. That has meant a huge increase in inequality. The top 1 percent of families now makes 26 times the average of the other 99 percent (the ratio was 11 to 1 in 1979). The top 0.1 percent makes 130 times the bottom 99 (up from a 38-to-1 ratio 40 years ago). And the inequality is not just between classes. The average wages of the average American have stayed largely flat for decades, but those averages hide a lot of volatility, as more people find themselves at the extremes of wealth or poverty. A successful plumber who has mastered all the new water-flow sensor technology and pipe-fitting innovations (and is probably in a union) can make more than $100,000 a year, while other plumbers, who just know the basics, could make less than $20,000.

The increasingly vicious battle between left and right is, at the most basic level, a dispute over how to respond to these new rules. Republicans largely claim that the new rules will make the country richer and, in the long run, will be beneficial to everyone willing to put in the hard work. Few Democrats call for a return to record high taxes and trade barriers — after all, the free flow of cheap goods has helped many, particularly the poor. But many do want a return to the spirit of the old rules, when the government sought to make life more equal, more stable and, for some, less rewarding. The rest of us, meanwhile, should go to school, learn some skills and prepare for a rocky road.

Source: NYTimes
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hinoema 27th-Nov-2011 08:10 pm (UTC)
As soon as I read the title, my eyes auto-rolled. I'm tired of people whining about a degree being worthless if it doesn't meet their often unrealistic expectations. This song has been playing for what, a few decades now? Easily.

Meh. Whatever. I've got a degree to work on.
hinoema PS...27th-Nov-2011 08:14 pm (UTC)
One of the greatest changes is that a college degree is no longer the guarantor of a middle-class existence.

A lot of people need to take a good hard look at the bullshit standard we've been fed about what this 'middle class' existence is supposed to be and stop trying to live their lives according to a market demographic.
devilstay 27th-Nov-2011 08:13 pm (UTC)
omg! OP your icon! Flawless goddess Seohyun. <3
fate_otaku 27th-Nov-2011 08:20 pm (UTC)
You have good taste. ;)
romp 27th-Nov-2011 08:52 pm (UTC)
The cultural myth of degree=success is a powerful one.

Degrees do result in higher pay when averaged over a few million people but that doesn't help individuals who are trying to pay the rent. Judging by my FB, those of us who went to uni in the '80s finds this unsurprising but those who went before and later (to a lesser degree, I'd guess) find this to be new information. What's most significant in this is how much the price of a degree has risen. The UC system has doubled the price since I was there.

Which is why I want my kids to be passionate about whatever field they go to uni for. Otherwise, they get any degree at 21 and then another that they care about 15 years later. Maybe they want to be farmers instead.
roseofjuly 28th-Nov-2011 01:23 am (UTC)
I joke that college is wasted on the young, but it's kind of true. I, like most college students, went to college when I was 18. I graduated right before the recession started, so I went during the period in which they were telling everyone to just major in what you loved and the jobs would come after. I majored in psychology. It just so happened that I fell in love with research and decided to get a PhD.

But about halfway through the program I had a severe depressive episode and I wanted to leave...except I realized that it would be quite difficult for me to get a well-paying job with a BA in psychology and an MA in sociomedical sciences. What helps is that I have a decent mathematical background with a strength in statistics, so I could've done data analysis. But inevitably, I would've had to go back and get a professional master's degree if I wanted to advance. And I already HAD a master's degree, albeit non-terminal, that I earned in my PhD program.

If I could go back age 18 knowing what I know now, I would've done things very differently. I love psychology but I wouldn't have majored in it. I probably would've gotten a nursing degree or one in civil engineering. I might still have come to get my PhD in public health, but either from the perspective of doing some practice + research (which I'm still considering - doing a BSN/MSN) or in doing urban planning from a public health perspective. But it would've been with the knowledge that if I wanted to leave, or the academic market was horrible (it is), or even if I just wanted to work a few years before getting the PhD - I could do those things with a reasonable expectation of finding a job.
fate_otaku 27th-Nov-2011 09:16 pm (UTC)
In my family's case, my parents know that a degree doesn't have much weight anymore for getting a non-government job but they still stress that I need it nonetheless.
roseofjuly 28th-Nov-2011 01:24 am (UTC)
Do you live in the U.S.? I don't think "a degree is useless" means that it doesn't have weight; what it means here (at least in my experience) is that you are increasingly "needing" a degree to get even the most menial of jobs.
lone_concertina 27th-Nov-2011 09:30 pm (UTC)
My friend has years of experience in her field but didn't finish her degree. She's been lying about graduating for years and no one ever checks it. I'm proud of her for doing that because the debt wasn't worth it for her, and she's kicking ass at what she does.
livetuned 27th-Nov-2011 09:50 pm (UTC)
Not that I don't believe there is no legitimacy to it, there definately is some, I can't help but feel there is a little bit of fearmongering with the whole "technology is replacing us!" statement.
livetuned 27th-Nov-2011 09:51 pm (UTC)
*Not that I believe there is no legitimacy
mariechan 28th-Nov-2011 12:05 am (UTC)
I kinda wish degrees were more worth it, but I also wish that college was free. This is mostly because I found college to be fun. It was like going to high school without the drama, and I really like classes and the atmosphere of a community college.

Now I can only afford online college and sure, it's flexible, but it doesn't feel so much like going to school. :c
serendipity_15 28th-Nov-2011 12:18 am (UTC)
OMG THIS

I enjoyed college a lot. I would one day love to go back and get my BS is biology degree, the major I started out with. I left with a BS in psychology and while I do love psychology i still did love bio, I just screwed up too badly to actually be able to finish that major with a semi-decent GPA.
___closetome 28th-Nov-2011 02:11 am (UTC)
same except I live with my dad and hopefully getting a 9-5 tomorrow. College freaks me out too. I'm still paying back my cc.
___closetome 28th-Nov-2011 02:17 am (UTC)
but cameron though, i mean you're all still way better off than us but cameron worships at the altar of fearmongering about socialism aka america aka the gospel of st. bastard.
___closetome 28th-Nov-2011 02:18 am (UTC)
lol @ your last sentence ia
escherzo 28th-Nov-2011 03:12 am (UTC)
I always hate posts like these :| not because I think they make invalid points, but because I'm a freshman finishing up my first quarter of college right now and this all gets translated to "DOOM DOOM DOOM YOU'RE DOOMED." But what can you do? You don't finish college, you end up working a terrible job with no prospects for advancement, you do finish college, you end up working a terrible job with the prospect of maybe, down the road, getting a slightly less terrible job if you're lucky and the economy ever picks up and if they don't decide to require a higher degree while you're finishing the lower one. I continue to have no idea if it's worth it in the long run.
etherealtsuki 28th-Nov-2011 03:42 am (UTC)
All I have to say is to create a lot of contacts and network your ass off. That's more important than what you're studying rn, tbh. If I knew that before senior year and not in a rage cloud of being in a major that I fucking hated, yeah.
24_24_1_1526 28th-Nov-2011 03:22 am (UTC)
Graduated with a B.A. in Sociology in 2005. Unemployed 10 months now. Need I say more? I also get tired of people asking me why I didn't major in computer science or some other technical field so I can make money and always be employable. Firstly, I do not have the aptitude to go after such a degree. Secondly, why does having a B.S. vs. B.A mean that I was lazy or that my worth is less than?

Every time someone mentions this to me, I have the overwhelming urge to slap them in the face.
etherealtsuki 28th-Nov-2011 03:37 am (UTC)
Secondly, why does having a B.S. vs. B.A mean that I was lazy or that my worth is less than?

For real, I graduated with a BA in Psych the same year... and been unemployed for 10 months as well. Yes, I hate that condescending look/tone when I say I graduated with a BA because I struggled enough with high school chemistry that I rather not with college-level and biology is boring as balls to go beyond the requirement.
warmsound 28th-Nov-2011 03:38 am (UTC)
Articles/posts like this just make me have so many feelings that I genuinely don't know how to reply. I had to drop out of college after nearly driving myself head-first into a breakdown because I got caught up in pressuring myself to fit the Full Time Student™ mold. I have chronic anxiety that really went into high gear after I started college, but it's something I've only begun to understand much about how it affects me in the past few years. I didn't even really know what was wrong with me when things got so bad. I floated through obscure/inaccurate notions of what I was dealing with and kept telling myself that I had to push it all aside and keep a full time course load because that's what you're 'supposed' to do. It's what you're pushed to do by the college, by advisors, it's what I know my parents expected, etc. My anxiety just kept getting worse and worse, and spun out into a major depressive spell to boot, and everything just utterly fell apart for me.

I finally allowed myself to admit that it was okay to drop out and focus on taking care of myself, and now I'm facing the question of how to go about finishing college, if I do. And I'm so fucking scared and confused. Things like this just make me despair even more; I get angry at myself for taking so long to realize what was going on and what I really needed to do, and I'm terrified about whether I can even manage to go back successfully, if it would even be worth it, so on and so forth. I don't even know how to fully articulate everything that articles like this make me feel. It's like an emotional avalanche, and the clearest thing I can make out is just that I'm so goddamn scared that I already fucked everything up too much. I don't know what to do. I'm already twenty-eight. There's so much about this subject that makes it far too easy to feel like it's already set in stone that I'm just a total failure. :-\
phoenix_san 28th-Nov-2011 03:48 am (UTC)
I definitely understand how you feel, especially in regard to the "total failure" aspect. I dropped out of college years ago because I couldn't afford it and was finally able to go back a year ago. I'm going to be twenty-seven in a few months and am lucky if I finish my BA/BS by the time I'm thirty. I don't want to be condescending and tell you not to feel upset or worried, but I honestly would try not to beat yourself up over the situation. It's really hard not to be anxious about it, but I try to keep in mind that people do things at different rates and that nothing really is set in stone. If you decide to go back, you'll do it at your own pace after all.

I wish you much luck in whatever you decide to do in the future.
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