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More White-Collar Job Woes

Watson’s entry into the job market is only the latest, clearest danger signal for white-collar jobs. The trouble has in fact been brewing for quite some time. A new study cited in The Atlantic refers to the past few years as a “lost decade” for college graduates, who have seen their (inflation-adjusted) entry-level wages fall by 5.2 percent for men and 4.4 percent for women, with no recovery in sight. Many would be quick to blame this on the Great Recession, but the article points out that this trend has been around since the late 1990s.

This news is doubly bad for college-educated professionals. The drop in wages has been accompanied by a steady increase in college attendance costs, which have risen by 30 percent between 2000 and 2010, from an average of $13,263 per year to $17,464. Professionals are being squeezed from both sides: paying more and more for a degree that unlocks opportunities that are paying less and less. Of course, unskilled or lower-skilled workers have faced down the problems of automation and outsourcing for a long time now, but they’ve done so without the added burden of college tuition costs and student loans. In that sense, professionals are worse off than their blue-collar peers.

As tough as choices are for today’s young people, there’s no going back. The new generation will need to come up with new answers to the problems of their time, much as the architects of the blue model did in their day. It is this type of forward thinking that will keep America vibrant and prosperous in the coming century.

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  • JKB

    But getting a college education, as opposed to going into a STEM field, is about opening up a life of the mind. We are told, over and over, it’s not about developing work skills and is cheap even with increasing tuition.

    Even if jobs are taken over by automation, they can’t take the “education” away. A life of the mind supported by flipping hamburgers is still a life of the mind.

  • Anthony

    WRM, markets, processes of organizational change, technological developments, and other currents are compelling Americans to wrestle with societal “recasting” without benefit of historical or contemporary explanation. That is, modern world (globalization, intense competion, etc.) presents new challenges and heretofore taken for granted categories, structures, and assumptions may no longer apply.

    As an aside, I watched Christine Legarde (IMF) in an interview and she said the most important economic and social issue facing developing countries is jobs….

  • Anthony

    Correction: I meant developed countries regarding C. Legarde’s statement.

  • Toni

    1. Are students developing skills that employers want?

    2. Adjusting for grade inflation, what are their real grades compared to students of 40 or 50 years ago?

  • Jim.

    It’s only a matter of time before someone brings this up anyway. Dismissing out of hand anything that works is probably a bad idea.

    After WWII, when American society was afraid that returning veterans wouldn’t have enough jobs for them, women were encouraged to get married and raise families instead of participating in the workforce. This prevented large numbers of unemployed men from causing trouble, and gave a secure economic place to these women, who spent their time providing many of the sorts of “post-Blue services” that Mead talks about.

    Whatever else you think of it, it worked. Rather than returning to the prewar problems, this country experienced a period of growth, unity, and peace. Of course, women had to find other ways to establish their social status; the ones who were bright and resourceful managed to do it, as they will in any situation. Ones that were not so exceptional had more trouble, as they will in any situation.

    Of course, after enjoying its benefits, the Boomers responded by declaring they were bored with it and crashed it, claiming they had a better way.

    They didn’t. STD rates, illegitimacy rates, broken homes, fatherless children, take your pick. Check out Murray’s work if you have any doubts. I would say that, aside from the racism, the 50’s were a far better social situation than today; if we could prevent the racism from returning (and I see few difficulties in that) moving back towards that (rather than sliding down towards what Europe has) would be a good way to go.

    Could the wise Professor Mead lead us all into a promised land that would work out a system that would be better still? Perhaps. But the Boomers thought they did too.

    Keep in mind an alternative that works, while you think about alternatives we have.

  • Elena

    @Jim. –

    A caveat to your alternative: exactly how widespread were single-income households in the 50’s? I say this not to denigrate stay-at-home moms (because my own mom did that, and she is and was awesome, and did a lot of work my dad simply couldn’t do since he was bringing home the bacon for the family), but my mom was the first person in her family who could afford to do that – and my dad was the first person in his family who could support a wife and three kids.

    Everyone in my grandparents’ generation had to work, no exceptions; my grandmothers and great-aunts always worked, because they had too. It’s probably this background that has always made me scoff at modern feminism; my grandmother would have loved to have been wealthy enough to stay at home with her kids.

    With that said, I would think that a rising percentage of one-income households (with two parents) is a effect of rising income, not a cause. Given the income in shrinking across the board, I would not expect one half of the couple to voluntarily give up extra income, especially in this economic climate.

    Really, I need to get some data on this subject…

  • Toni

    Jim, I agree with everything you wrote — except that the 1950s kept the peace by barring women, blacks and Hispanics from good jobs.

    As a kid watching TV in the early 1960s, I thought I had four career options: model, nurse, ballerina or schoolteacher. I grew up to write stories for Forbes for 20 years.

    As a kid watching TV in the early 1960s, I at least saw kids who looked like me. Black and Hispanic kids didn’t.

    One way or another, peace always comes at a price.

  • justaguy

    Charles Murray’s Real Education is applicable here. Murray proposes than only the academic top 10% of students should get a four year degree.

    Are the problems with a “college degree” now caused by the fact that too many of the college”graduates” don’t learn anything, can’t think analytically or rationally? If OWS is a sample of these displaced college students, then it seems the answer is yes.

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