Education Inflation and the Future of Jobs

Education Inflation These days, the only jobs not requiring a college degree, or some kind of post-high school training or certificate course are in manual labor, or the very lowest rung of service positions.  These include fast food, waitressing, and retail sales and stocking.  The lucky few who are both hard workers and happen to get noticed, can still work their way up into management from the inside, but the percentage of people able to do this is fairly low, compared to the number of workers.

Yet, a college education is no guarantee of a job, and becoming even less so as more people become college educated.  Furthermore, 73 percent of college graduates in the United States now end up working in a different field from what they studied.

Many of the jobs now requiring college degrees used to require only high school degrees in the 1950s.  Why, then, are college degrees required now for jobs such as insurance adjuster, salesperson of insurance or office equipment, higher-levels of office assistants, and most office jobs, even though many of these jobs pay relatively low white-collar salaries? Why are employers requiring college degrees, without caring too much what subject the future employee has a degree in?  The reason is that they feel it is indicative of the person’s quality.  It’s proof to an employer that they will hire someone with sufficient reading, writing, and critical thinking ability.  It weeds out the people who can’t make it through college because of weak reading/writing abilities.  Good reading/writing abilities are a good indication of good thinking abilities and adequate arithmetic skills for use in everyday life business situations.

In the 1950s, a high school degree was indicative of the good skills which a college degree indicates today.  Now that most people graduate from high school, many people seem to have that piece of paper, but still haven’t mastered basic arithmetic in order to be able to do business math, and cannot read, write, think, or speak, at the level employers require in a white-collar office setting. Before I had a college degree, I worked as an executive secretary (and had taken courses in a secretarial school to be able to do so).  Later, when I was in a management position in a bank, and was hiring an executive assistant, I asked for a typing speed of 70 words per minute as one of the hiring qualifications.  Why?  It was not because we had a lot of things to type; it was because excellent typing skills are the best indicator that a potential assistant really has good skills in all areas. Similarly, a college degree is the best current indicator to an employer that they are hiring someone who has the general  reading, writing, critical thinking, intelligence, and public presentation abilities that they want.  Now a graduate degree is usually required to get a higher-paying job in a specialized field.  The one exception to this might be in any type of engineering.

What we are really fighting today is the process of technology advancing to take over higher-and-higher level jobs.  First we saw low-wage manual labor taken over by robots.  Next we saw most former middle-class jobs outsourced to third-world countries as their workers became educated–for example, our lower-level legal research formerly performed by new lawyers, now being outsourced to India.  Accounting work, such as tax returns, are now being outsourced over the internet to trained accountants in India.  In both cases, their foreign salaries are far less than would have been paid in America.  Now there is talk of replacing fast-food service workers and restaurant service workers with robotic solutions.  Some of these are already being tried out in Asia.

A computer-scientist friend of mine from Silicon Valley claims very convincingly that it is only a matter of time before all jobs are taken over by computers.  He claims that it is only a matter of time before computers will be able to repair themselves and no longer require humans to do so.  He further claims that even scientific research no longer need humans, as the way to solve a problem is to throw a lot of research at one area, trying many things until a solution is found.   He points out that computers are far more efficient at doing this than humans.  I always imagined that Hal, the computer, in 2001:  A Space Odyssey, could never be a reality, but my friend insists this is not nearly as far off as people think. If my friend is right, then we can look forward to a world without work, where all work is done by machines.

Unfortunately,in a capitalist world, this might be an unattractive future for many people, as how will they live, or get money to live?  The European socialist model might work better in a world without work, as machines produce, and the benefits from that are divided among all.  Different countries, capitalist or socialist, might take different paths toward dealing with the future problem of a world without work.  This is a frightening prospect, indeed. Will some countries of the world divide ever further, in a world without work, between haves and have-nots, while others create socialist utopias?  Or will the countries of the world divide between those who can afford computers and robots to do work, while those without robots employ humans as the lowest-wage slave labor?

–Lynne Diligent

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13 Responses to “Education Inflation and the Future of Jobs”

  1. Maria Matthews Says:

    I agree with you . human beings existence is now under threat and I worry what quality of life my children will have in 30 years time

  2. scottamckinney Says:

    I’m curious Lynne: do you think the higher education industry is, by-and-large, a scam?

    Can’t post it here but LinkedIn’s Peter Thiel published a visualization of the number of bachelor degrees vs. the median salary graduates get. The first steadily rises, but the latter steadily declines, yet universities still advertise that a degree helps students get better paying jobs.

    Also found a relevant post on: taylorpearson.me/commoditization/. Taylor presents the Cynefin framework, a 4-square breakdown of the types of skills needed in work: simple, complicated, complex, and chaotic.

    Machines can do complicated work: eg: a handheld calculator can do what it would have taken a coordinated team of people hundreds of person-hours to complete 100 years ago.

    But no computer on the planet can solve a problem like he presents: he knows a successful midwestern small business owner who wants to expand to a nearby city, but has no idea how to approach the move to a new market.

    Taylor asks the question: would the business owner find it more worthwhile to hire a Harvard MBA to advise him, or, say, a youngster, without a degree, who taught himself on the internet, and opened an expanding skateboard company on the side?

  3. Lynne Diligent Says:

    Scott, no I don’t think higher education is a scam. There could be a few schools out there trying to scam people, but overall, no I don’t think so.

    Your question could be divided into several parts.

    Technical schools, are, I think, trying to provide precise courses that match the job market. Years ago, before completing college, I went to a community college for a year, specifically for secretarial skills, since I was getting married at the young age of 20. I only had one year to take what I could, and was not able to complete the two-year course. I chose my courses carefully, and that one year of courses positioned me quite well to get a very good secretarial job at the time.

    Later, I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in History. I went back to work as an executive secretary, but this time at a brokerage firm. After six months some positions opened up for a new training class to become stock brokers. I applied, and was accepted. I’m sure if I had applied from outside, I probably would not have been accepted. It was a case of being in the right place at the right time.

    I think thirty years ago, there were fewer people with college degrees, yet they were still required for many mid-level white-collar jobs, mainly because they were indiciative of the person being of a high enough quality to obtain a college degree. I think this is even more the case now, which is what the colleges are continuing to say in their marketing.

    The difference now, however, is that there are so many more candidates chasing so many fewer jobs. These economic facts do not make the schools into scammers, at least not intentionally. I believe most universities are believing what they are saying, and hoping the economics will improve, and are acting in good faith. Personally, I think the economics are going to get worse, as I have indicated in this post.

    With the availability of school loan money, prices continue to rise. But college professors are more and more being replaced by hourly-paid adjunct professors who are part-time and without benefits, in order for colleges to keep costs down, too. This problem is now everywhere.

    My thoughts are this. A college education should also be about self-actualization, if one can afford to go. If one cannot afford to go without taking out massive loans, it’s better not to go, and not take out those loans, because one cannot be assured of finding a job sufficient to pay off those loans later. Better to go the route of trying to get in with a company at the base level and work one’s way up into management. It can still be done, although it is difficult.

    Moderate loans are probably still worthwhile, but I think young people are better off to not have debt, unless perhaps getting a medical degree or some field in which they can be very assured of work.

  4. Jean Vincent Says:

    I now envision three possibilities for a future without jobs, or a combination of these three:
    – Social chaos due to strong inequalities and the insufficient redistribution of wealth
    – Redistribution of wealth through charity or basic income tax
    – Redistribution through the stock market, where everyone holds some portfolio managed by AI of course

    If you think about it, these three already exist, we do have some form of controlled social chaos in some countries, many welfare laws and charities redistribute some wealth, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation does redistribute wealth out of the proceeds of their own stock portfolio.

    A future without jobs also means a future where professional education becomes useless, where parents can spend much more time for a different kind of education of the younger generation, allowing “slow” travel around the world, more time to care about the environment, no job-related excuses for not acting on environmental and social issues, etc …

    The hardest moment is actually now, in the transition period where only a few can afford not-to work, while others struggle to find jobs.

    The current lack of enough automation, and political beliefs in a value system requiring hard work, make it difficult to accept and design another future.

    Somehow, many jobs actually exist solely for the sole purpose of occupying people, these occupations have been qualified as “bullshit” jobs (http://strikemag.org/bullshit-jobs/).

    So as scary as it may sound to people living in a job-centric world, a future without jobs might offer the prospect of a better world.

  5. Priscilla Says:

    This discussion reminds me of something Isaac Asimov (scientist, writer, and futurist) said in 1984 when asked what people would do once machines, robots, and computers did all the work.

    He replied, “What will be left, then, for human beings to do? Only everything–everything human, that is; everything that involves insight, intuition, fancy, imagination, creativity. The twenty-first century will be the first in which the natural creative potential of human beings generally will be utilized and encouraged from the first.”*

    I see a little of this in the organic gardening/sustainability movement, in nurturing ‘villages’ in the cities with local tradesmen and artisans, the ‘app’ creators who make it big and use it to go into space and finance life-saving research.

    There is much to be done yet in understanding the brain and human interaction so that we can one day live in peace with our neighbors worldwide.

    We’ll always universities and colleges to teach the liberal arts and critical thinking. We’ll always need vocational education and trade schools to teach the ‘practical arts.” (I can’t imagine a world without plumbers.) Both kinds should be equally respected, valued and remunerated.

    What we don’t need are for profit universities with outrageous tuition and skimpy credentials that are subsidized by federal student loans.

    *Omni magazine, January, 1984, entitled “1984, What Now?”r

  6. Frank Says:

    After reading, “The World Is Flat”, I asked my son “what jobs cannot be outsourced to other countries?” The only ones that exist are those which deal with the interactivity with people. Teaching, plumbing, gardening, nursing, other jobs in the medical field.
    Colleges need to start training people in vocational skills as opposed to the liberal arts.

    • scottamckinney Says:

      Agreed but there is a quality issue with outsourcing. India and China both have deep ingrained problems with corruption and quality assurance, so to produce a quality, durable product, it can actually be cheaper to do it from the 1st World. I read that wealthy people in the “outsourcing countries” will actually pay extra to have products that are made in, say, the UK or US.

      • Frank Says:

        Scott:
        You are absolutely correct. The same son works in the computer industry and is “fixing” software problems that have taken place in China, Korea and India. But nontheless, look at the labels of the clothing you are wearing, the glass frames of the glasses you wear or the “American” assembled products like cell phones and computer which are manufactured in developing countries.

      • Lynne Diligent Says:

        Scott, this is especially true since wages have come down in the First World. Wasn’t it Ikea which had an uproar in Europe when it was discovered that the new plant they built in Kentucky or Tennessee was paying something like half of the European wages and benefits?

      • scottamckinney Says:

        Hadn’t heard that about Ikea, Lynne.

        Are you familiar with Nassim Taleb’s work on “black swans”/randomness/antifragility?

  7. Lynne Diligent Says:

    Scott and Frank, I have seen programs on doctors who are now working from remote locations diagnosing conditions and instructing other doctors on surgery. At the moment, it seems to be doctors from the first world remotely diagnosing people in developing world, and helping to diagnose patients in the developing world. But I’m sure that’s only a matter of time before that flips around.

  8. Frank Says:

    Lynn: I sincerely hope and believe you are right. But my experience with educators are that they are “risk adverse”. They would rather succeed with failure than try new things which might result in success. And like most, they measure change and think that they are measuring improvement. There is a difference and it is not merely simantics.

  9. Lynne Diligent Says:

    This amazing short video shows many new machines I’ve not seen before. Imagine if someone from 1900 saw these.
    http://safeshare.tv/w/LEFEsQlbSI

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