The Religion of Self Improvement Grinds On Despite Hard Times for Grads

Graduation time—and the living ain’t easy. But the commencement speeches this month are little different from what they’ve always been: i.e., gaseous exhortations to the graduates to go take the world by the horns, now that they have been equipped for conquest by four (or more) years of academic labor.

The underlying assumption is that a college education still furnishes individuals with an exceptional degree of personal autonomy and the capacity to choose, as employers of all kinds will be more or less bidding for the services of the lucky grads. If parents and students were not buying into this assumption, it’s hard to explain why they would by buying into (or borrowing into) the high-priced college sweepstakes to begin with.

Unfortunately, even as cries of “Go to college!” grow louder, the premium received for taking that costly plunge grows ever smaller. Higher Ed’s dirty little secret is that real earnings for U.S. college graduates have declined since 2000 (and were already declining before the onset of the Great Recession), even as the number of graduates in the workforce grew from 26 to 30 percent during these same years. As a New York Times report lamented back in February, “the college degree is becoming the new high school diploma”: a degree is the minimum required to hold a job, but it is not enough to deliver a reasonable middle-class income.

In a recent Harper’s essay, Jeff Madrick accurately describes “get more education” as a cardinal tenet of mainstream economic orthodoxy, even as he pounds that tenet to smithereens: “Mainstream economists are disturbingly wedded to an ideology that fails to take into account the fact that labor markets can fail or that workers can be abused.”

Madrick is especially good at taking apart the polarization thesis that insists earnings will always rise for non-routine work that requires independent judgment and creativity.

“A tiny group of workers has enjoyed all the benefits of economic growth while everyone else treads water,” Madrick writes. “This problem simply cannot be explained by invoking abstract thinking and non-routine work, and so more education cannot be the way to fix it.” He also observes that the extremely well-paid One Percenters aren’t even that creative: most are merely the beneficiaries of the U.S. economy’s morbid financialization of recent decades.

If insufficient college training doesn’t explain declining incomes, what does? Mainly, it is class warfare waged from the top: e.g., the continuing war on organized labor that has reduced the unionized share of the private sector workforce to less than seven percent. It’s that, and the related systematic offshoring of manufacturing which has taken the percentage of total domestic jobs in that sector from 25 percent to less than nine percent over the past three decades.

Liberal Orthodoxy Run Aground

A trained economist, Jeff Madrick is naturally concerned to take aim at the wrongheaded and inhumane dimensions of mainstream economic orthodoxy. But I do not expect conventional economists to have much of a heart for social justice, whereas I do expect social and religious liberals to be capable of separating themselves from the mindless “Go to college!” mantra.

Alas, there is almost no separation whatever. From the President to the heads of the liberal interest groups to the top preachers to the liberal bloggers and TV pundits, it’s all still about the obligation of individuals to raise themselves from the mire—to make something of themselves by getting a college education.

This common fixation on self-improvement is clearly rooted in old Protestant ideas of individual salvation, which then evolved into the distinctively American religion that Bill McKibben once wittily referred to as “Franklinity”: the belief, found nowhere in the Christian gospel, that God helps those who help themselves.

Needless to say, there are—or ought to be—many benefits accruing to college graduates apart from enhanced earning power. Having the capacity for independent thought will always be of value whether or not it adds to one’s lifetime earning capacity. Ironically, today it is precisely the liberal arts within higher education—the part that introduces college students to the pleasure of independent thinking—that is being stripped away for the sake what is alleged to be a greater employability gained by means of the narrow vocational approach.

A double cruelty, then: no real prospect of rising economically in consequence of all that sheepskin-related work and debt, and not even the traditional consolation of being in possession of a liberated mind. And people still wonder why the Millennials are cynical about politics?

Economists who believe in self-regulating labor markets will never say it, but the rest of us need to shout it from the rooftops: the system that was supposed to generate social mobility is now thoroughly broken, and in this circumstance it is obscene to insist that individual striving should somehow make up for it.