Degrees and Dollars

Paul Krugman had an interesting column today in the New York Times. He was suggesting that the relationship between education and employment was a myth and had been for decades. My own experience suggests there is some truth to this and that we need to look beyond the nattering of our HR universal experts to determine what to do next. When I started working back in the 1960’s the economy was rumbling along and a wide range of jobs were open to anyone who showed an interest. Companies had expected to train new hires in the specifics of their industry and job needs,so there was no need for an exacting fit — good attitude, intelligence and adaptability were enough.

One could contrast this with the job requirements one reads today — very specific and exacting (recent) skills, for many experience is a disqualifier. So people are encouraged to ‘invest’ in an education and gamble that when they get out that jobs will be available in their specialty. And they will somehow manage to pay off the enormous debt that accumulates in the current ‘for profit’ education model. We will ignore the kinds of jobs for which a Phd is just an entry requirement.

What Krugman points out is that there has been a hollowing out of the job market — the real low end jobs are still there, the high priced jobs (for which ‘clubability’ and connections seem to count more than just ability). But the kinds of well-paying jobs that supported a robust middle class are largely gone — replaced by automation and foreign imports.

As society continues to re-feudalize, the growth of an impoverished lower class is inevitable, possibly even desirable for the ruling parties, the rich and fatuous, to maintain class distinctions. But there is a problem — without a supply of bread and circuses (reality TV?) this growing lower class will eventually explode and we start on another cycle of re-democratization. This has been the pattern for a while, certainly seems like it will continue.

But I would suggest that there is another alternative hinted at in the realms of scifi. If goods are being produced by automated processes, why work?  Food, shelter, medical care and access to education could be just government services. Population management will be a real issue of course. But education rather than mere skills development might lay the foundation for a new kind of society. Something to think about and question our assumptions and expectations.

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