The Ultra-Surplus Job Markets

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111 Responses

  1. Avatar LeeEsq says:

    I think you mean that now there is a crisis among pharmarcy students rather than there is no crisis among pharmacy students.

    One solution to the seemingly endless problems with the job market is the Guaranteed Basic Income, where everybody receives X amount a year and could elect to work in order to increase their income. GBI is a radical solution since it goes beyond even the most geneous welfare state policieis. It also runs against many people’s ideology on how things are supposed to work like the welfare state did. For more than a few people, many but not all of whom are very rich and powerful, the vagaries of life are simply things that people have to deal with themselves or through their kin and community rather than government. If you study and train hard for a job like pharmarcy but can’t find any work in your vocation than that is simply how life is supposed to be.

    We can also try to increase the job market by ending immigration and attempting to create a largely closed economy but that doesn’t work so well in practice.Report

    • Avatar Will Truman says:

      I think he meant that there is “now” a crisis.

      Anyway, there is a danger with going for the “hot” career paths. I nonetheless have a great deal of sympathy for those who went to law school at the wrong time. I have less sympathy for people who are going there now (though most that I know personally seem to be doing okay).

      My brother majored in aerospace engineering at a time when everybody said “Don’t do it! There’s a glut!” and it worked out well for him because, by the time he graduated, either the work had picked up or enough people took that advice to rebalance supply and demand.

      We will have to see what becomes of the pharmacy graduates. My guess is that with their background they will still do better than a number of other majors, for the same reason that engineering majors seem to do okay even when they don’t get jobs in their major. It depends on how well the schools did. It used to be that being a business major by itself had career currency, but then (a) a lot of people started majoring in business and (b) it turned out that business schools weren’t doing a job of actually producing quality graduates. My impression of pharmacy school is that it is harder to water down the degree to which business programs and many liberal arts programs are watered down.Report

    • Avatar Bert The Turtle says:

      @LeeEsq As much as a GBI appeals to me, Scott Sumner has a good post on somepractical concerns which might arise with the actual implementation of a GBI. His concerns about whether it would need to be adjusted for high cost of living areas and how that would affect incentives don’t particularly worry me. However, his point about how incentives could perversely lead to an increase in economic stratification seem to be worth thinking about.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw says:


        I think GAI is probably a pipe dream because it goes against all of human history and psychology. I can only think of a small handful of people on the left who argue seriously that we should have GAI/GBI and this is in a circle of friends who are almost exclusively on the left and a decent amount who understand un or underemployment because of current trends in the U.S. economy. I think GAI is probably too radical a step for most people.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq says:

        GBI is probably impractical for many reasons and even if it were practical, it would face stiff and intense ideological opposition. People do not magically go away when jobs are rendered redundant. The increasing specialization of work is an economically good thing in terms of generating wealth like it always has been but if you train for something and a glut occurs or technology renders the job obsolete than re-training is going to be difficult at best or maybe even impossible. Either we just accept this as part of life or we fine to try some solution to the issues but that has becoming increasingly more difficult. The winners are winning big and don’t want to bend even a little.Report

      • Avatar Doctor Jay says:

        I support GBI. Or UBI, is that different? I don’t know that I’d call myself “far left”. Milton Friedman supported GBI. He certainly wasn’t far left. I also think that things like a robust system of free university education didn’t exactly ruin the job market in Germany.

        Yeah, there’s a lot of radical resistance to it. So what? There was a lot of entrenched opposition to same sex marriage, and what happened? I think you should just say what you want, rather than sweating about the fact that it will make some people yell at you. There aren’t that many yellers here at OT anyway.

        I’m not a march in the streets kind of guy, though. I’m not going to chain myself to some fence in support of GBI.

        We have a monster of a problem with inequality. In fact, most of the job/economic/social posts here on OT are, in some way, connected to inequality.

        For example, the piece about the people who grind away checking all the boxes to get into the right colleges? The main reason we care at all is that the right colleges are the gateway to the 1 percent. Otherwise, let ’em work while we relax at our backyard barbeque playing board games.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        Doctor Jay,
        “The right colleges are the gateway to the 1 percent”
        … the word isn’t colleges, though.Report

    • Avatar Lyle says:

      In the late 1980s thru the early 2000 there was a drastic oversupply of geologists and petroleum engineers in the US when the price of oil crashed in 1985. Combine that with a good bit of automation coming in in that time in the office work, and lots of folks were let go as well as shrinkage in the size of the college programs that prepare one for that job. Then when the oil industry realized that they did a lot of hiring from 1976 to 1984, and that these folks were approaching retirement, combined with horizontal drilling and fracking the job market turned around. Today petroleum engineering jobs start at 100k, but that may soon change if the price of oil continues to go down. My parents reported that before the Korean war started engineering jobs were scarce as another data point.Report

  2. Avatar Mo says:

    Is this new? It seems that there’s always a cycle of “hot jobs” with high pay that get a glut of people. In the 80s, it was aerospace engineers.

    This is pretty normal in all markets, labor and otherwise. It used to be the case that being a PC manufacturer was a highly lucrative and profitable business. So a bunch of people said, “I want some of that,” and made it less so. Same with TV makers or auto manufacturers or … Law and academia will roll off and something new fills the gap. Then coding will roll off and something else will come up behind it. I see no indication that this is a relatively novel situation, just the names are different.Report

  3. Avatar Arcane_NH says:

    Sounds like a strong argument in favor of a broad-based liberal arts education.Report

  4. Avatar Kim says:

    Just wait until we lose the internet!
    Seriously, 50% job loss worldwide in the next 20 years.Report

    • Avatar James Hanley says:


      You’ll be hearing from my lawyer soon. Every time you write this my head uncontrollably slams into my desk, and the repeated blows have left me more brain-damaged than an NFL hall-of-famer. We’ll be asking for compensatory damages sufficient to put all my children through college and provide 24/7 in-home nursing for me for the rest of my life.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw says:

        Now that’s an idea!Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        Man, you’re easy! I didn’t even have to seriously suggest holding an airplane hostage until the gov’t wires us money! [ahem. no that wasn’t actually me. I don’t have either the capabilities nor the “i can do this and not die” attitude].

        Removal of the internet in times of unrest and civil strife (which would be extremely likely with large-scale job loss and dislocation) is a standard tool in the dictator’s pocket. Shouldn’t surprise you that the rich (and right wing) oligarchs come up with it and then label it a “good idea.” Hell, it’s been hard enough convincing the LeftWing that a free internet is a good thing. (Props where props are due: Scaife actually counts as a libertarian, at least on this matter, judging by his patterns of donation).Report

  5. Avatar Jaybird says:

    Fundamentally, the problem seems to be the whole “pay back student loans” thing.

    If you graduate with debt: you *NEED* a job that will help you pay an extra $300/$400/$500 a month (FOR FREAKIN EVER). So you can’t graduate and then get a job jerking tap at Applebee’s while looking for the chemistry position to open up. You can’t graduate and get a job at the Home Depot while you’re waiting for your perfect Pharmacy job. You can’t graduate and get a crap job that pays enough for you to make rent/gas/vinyl/beer money while you’re working to find your eventual career in your off hours.

    You’ve got to graduate and then get RIGHT ON THAT FREAKING HORSE.

    I’ve thought for a while that I lucked out most because I entered the market at the tail end of the companies willing to train newbies era… but I’m wondering if I didn’t luck out because I went to college at the tail end of the being able to pay for college with restaurant wages era.Report

    • Avatar Saul Degraw says:


      Probably both but I suspect there is a lot of damn good luck in graduating at the tail end of the “being able to pay for college with restaurant wages era.”

      Of course plenty of college graduates do take bar tending, waiting table, retail jobs, and other low-wage and probably not demanding of college degree jobs while looking for work that will move them up. This causes employer’s to only hire college grads for jobs which could probably be done without one and this makes things harder for people without college degrees.

      I also think those service jobs can be problematic because they are really draining and it is very hard to do a night-sift at a bar and then got up at 9 AM for job searching and interviews. I know a woman who graduated from college later but not too later in life (she was about 30). She originally wanted to be an English major but switched to Forensics because it seemed more practical and she cared about sexual assault victims. She once got mad at me for saying she should have stuck with majoring in English She is now discovering that those jobs don’t necessarily exist as advertised/promised. She is still working as a server but went to college to stop working as a server, etc.

      I once saw a dog walking company that promised all their dog walkers would have college degrees and this made me mad because dog walking is not a job that should require college degrees. My college educated and dog owning friends say that they would be more likely to use a dog walking or grooming service that promised to only employ college-degree holding people because of basic competency issues.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        Well, keeping in mind that I went to a school with not a whole lot of cachet, I’ll say that my yearly tuition was about 6 grand (I was living at home). Looking now, the school costs about 9 grand… assuming you’re still living at home. If you want to live on campus, it’s 20.

        Dang. That’s expensive.

        And it’s still a school without a whole lot of cachet.Report

      • Avatar Alan Scott says:

        I just don’t get that “college educated dog walkers” theory. Unless it was a really, really expensive dog walking service.

        I mean, telling me “these employees are college graduates who can’t get any job better than that of dog walker” isn’t inspiring confidence in these employees.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw says:


        I think it is snobbery. College educated people preferring to stick around and employ other college-educated people.

        I also have a theory that people like Lyft over taking taxis because you are usually dealing with drivers who are grad students or artists instead of immigrants from very different cultures or vietnam vets. You get to have a cultural connection.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        as a customer, it’s because the taxis have a horrid rep, and you can wait 5 hours to actually get picked up. Also, it’s easier to get a lyft, plain period.

        Nothing about who is driving, simply about convenience. (In fact, 20+ vets would make me happier. Everyone gets lost in pittsburgh, including grad students).Report

  6. Avatar j r says:

    The solution is that there is no solution. There is no top-down program or policy that we can enact to make sure that the number of college graduates with specific skills perfectly matches the number of available jobs in any given period of time.

    Here is what we can do:

    -Enact policies that support economic growth. The more economic activity there is, the more people the economy will employ.

    -Stop distorting the market for higher education. Price serves a function in that it relays important information and the predominant model of funding college shields kids from the price upfront and extracts it from them, with a healthy vig, later on when there is nothing they can do.

    -Give kids better advice. The whole focus on major is a bit unwarranted. Your major can certainly signal your level of interest in a specific field to a potential employer, but ultimately that employer is evaluating you on overall fit and skills. And the best way to improve how you are evaluated is by finding people who do the job that you want to do and finding out how they got there, what they spend their days doing and learning the language that they speak.

    And speaking of job prospects, I largely with deBoer in debunking the obsession with majors, but he also says this, which i find downright bizarre:

    There is no such thing as practical knowledge, and so there is no such thing as a practical major.

    Of course there is such a thing as practical knowledge. Knowing how to read a balance sheet and connect it to changes in the cash flow statement is practical knowledge. Knowing how to process a trade order is practical knowledge. Knowing how to draft and pitch a press release to a magazine is a piece of practical knowledge. I don’t know whether they teach these things to business, finance or communications majors, but these are certainly skills that a kid can acquire, either through internships, or certification exams, or independently. And they will certainly make you more employable.

    I suspect that deBoer’s dismissal of practical skills is connected to a larger his larger belief that there is no such thing as deserving, at least not as we commonly understand it, and that the whole system is rigged in such a way as to be unfair and capricious and designed to keep us all on one long lifelong treadmill.Report

    • Avatar James Hanley says:

      Are you familiar with Freddie DeBoer, or is his name new to you?Report

      • Avatar j r says:

        I know him (not personally but I know that we have some common acquaintances) and I’ve read his writing intermittently. He falls into that category where he is out there enough that I dig his overall skepticism of the system, but enough of a leftist that I don’t dig most of his suggested solutions. Although, I am all for a UBI.

        Am I misinterpreting the “no such thing as practical knowledge thing?”Report

      • Avatar James Hanley says:

        Misinterpreting? I think that would assume DeBoer actually has a clear idea of what he means, which I think would be a very generous assumption.

        He’s the kind of leftist that might join me in tearing down the system, but the moment it fell we’d both turn and shoot at each other as people too dangerous to keep around for the rebuilding.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw says:


        Interestingly I am in the same boat with “knowing” De Boer. I have a friend from college who is starting on a writing career and has published in a decent amount of respected internet places. So his facebook feed is filled with other internet writers, some high up cultural people, etc. It is interesting sometimes.Report

    • Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist says:

      Or follow the Danish & (now) German model & make tuition free across the board (or at least at State schools), while not making the mistake of letting anyone major in anything (i.e. educational rationing).

      Personally, I’d rather end the student loan money train & force Universities to either scale back on the bread & circuses, or do more to get endowments & other funds (could we do something to the tax code to make gifts, etc to universities more attractive?).Report

    • Avatar LWA says:

      I’m skeptical about the asserted benefits of economic growth and activity, at least as presented here as a remedy to a mismatch between college majors and job skills.
      Its true on one level, that a vibrant economy presents more opportunities than a stagnant one.

      But part of economic activity is the rapid turnover and fluctuations of supply and demand. Disruption and the Darwinian clearing of deadwood sounds attractive, but how does this affect the ability for an entire generation to plan their lives, to establish the bonds of community and kin and as important, to make long term purchases like mortgages? If you know that your life will be marked by a series of sudden and unpredictable crises, layoffs and economic catastrophes, wouldn’t it just make sense to retreat to a defensive crouch?

      I don’t propose an easy answer, other than to point out that economic dynamism isn’t an unvarnished good thing. It comes with real costs that aren’t being addressed very well in our society.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw says:


        I need to agree with what @lwa is saying.

        Right now, I see a lot of hype going around about how Millennials should just embrace the whole freelance and gig economy thing and make it their own. The problem with this is that it goes against human psychology and can equally be interpreted as never making a foothold.

        I find it very hard to think about getting a mortgage, yet alone starting a family if I am going to be doing freelance gig after freelance gig. Sometimes it feels like even getting married is a luxury or something that won’t happen.* I’ve been freelancing and doing contract work for the last 2.5 years and it is psychologically exhausting. There might be benefits to market anarchy, innovation, and disruption but there are also very real human costs.


        The article shows that the most important thing many women are looking for in a spouse is a steady job. I’ve been doing okay to good as a freelancer/contracter/temp but it is not what I would call steady.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        Maybe we, as a society, should do more to teach women that it’s what’s inside that counts?Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw says:


        I can’t tell whether you are being sarcastic or not.

        Anyway I am not sure I would even want to date myself given my current economic situation. When I am going around one particular dating site the women generally seem to be way more employed and career-advancing than I am and it makes me feel out of my league.Report

      • Right now, I see a lot of hype going around about how Millennials should just embrace the whole freelance and gig economy thing and make it their own. The problem with this is that it goes against human psychology and can equally be interpreted as never making a foothold.

        But what’s the alternative for the millenials in the here and now? Yes, they could probably vote for politicians who promise to implement policies that supposedly will restructure the economy so that there are more full-time jobs and less freelancing and bring about the new(er) millennium. But in the meantime, they have to make lemonade somehow.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw says:


        My problem with the make lemonade thing is that it basically lets the people who created the mess off the hook because they are also the ones who telling new grads to embrace freelancing and entruepenurshipReport

      • @saul-degraw

        But can’t people do both? Yes, try to effect good change for more stable jobs, but even if one stipulates that there is a solution or that the solution is as simple as, say, passing laws to require employers to step up,* it’ll take time. In the meantime, why not try to work with what you have?

        *Of course, I’m skeptical about what can be done. In my opinion, anything, in order to work, will have to be more of a nudge. I do support robust safety nets, however, to make any landings softer. If it can’t be a GBI, then maybe better health care guarantees, etc.Report

  7. Avatar James Hanley says:

    where almost every job and occupation has more supply than demand

    That seems to require more people who want to work than who want to consume, and I’m not grasping how the math works out on that.Report

  8. Avatar North says:

    The big problem, I think, is that the motivation of university students can be divided up into three categories: People who prioritize a mind expanding education, people who prioritize getting a nice job and people who prioritize having a wonderful experience.

    I’d submit that the number of students who prioritize the first choice are a depressingly lot lower than university professionals would like to believe.Report

    • Avatar Saul Degraw says:


      There could be a fair bit of mix between the various categories to varying degrees. I am largely in the first category but still like the experiences of my college time including Founder’s Day when we sat in the sun and the college gave us free beer.

      Though you are probably right about #1 being the smallest of the group and my general friend circles are probably an exception over the rule.

      I think the issue with practicality oriented majors is that they will always be playing catch-up. There will be a few years when colleges and universities can offer them with great success but eventually the market will flood and things will go bust. I think this is going to be happening with kids who are learning coding right now. The oil industry is currently booming but that won’t last forever either.

      I have a lot of friends from law school who are in so-called JD advantage jobs. These jobs are things like contract management, regulatory compliance, grant proposal writing and administration, etc. Stuff that you can probably do with an undergrad degree or an MPA but many employers are probably now hiring JDs because they can. What is interesting is that a lot of these friends got their positions through a recruiting agency and the same recruiter. Said recruiter has never put me forward for anything but a lawyer position. I wonder if there is something about me that screams lawyer. Though my friends say I would probably be miserable at said job and they are probably right.Report

      • Avatar North says:

        It’s bitterly true about the catch up. The brutal truth is that networking is massively more valuable than education. So for extroverts being at the right school can be a bonanza whereas for introverts it doesn’t matter a jot.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw says:


        Social people with the right connections can go anywhere and probably come out on top. This was covered in “Paying for the Party: How College Increases Inequality.” The rich kids were able to go to an okay but not great university (Indiana), party for four years, pick really easy “business-lite” majors like event management and planning (lite because they lacked the calculus and statistics requirements of the actual business major) and get good jobs.

        The first-generation college students who tried emulating the rich kids (including picking lite-majors) generally got screwed over because they lacked the necessary connections and a bit of the social skills.

        Even first-generation college students who worked hard and picked real majors got potentially screwed over because they attended Indiana instead of a more prestigious university (this happened to one aspiring Classics scholar when it came time for grad school applications and scholarships). And some students who wanted to be dentists but also needed to work and ended up with mediocre GPAs and unable to get into Dental School.Report

      • Avatar North says:

        Yep, I remember reading that one.
        I don’t see a solution but neither increasing student aid or forgiving debt (aka funneling even more dough into universities) strikes me as helping.Report

      • Avatar dhex says:

        an expensive lazy river is like an mfa program – neither will see any use after graduation.


        thank you thank you i’ll be here all semester.

        more seriously, part of the outcry here is that pundits in particular have adjusted very poorly to the change from supplicant to applicant in this process while access widened quite significantly. so it’s baffling that amenities get built, because they’re thinking of a model that’s about 20 years dead at this point.

        really want to drive up the value of college degrees and drive down costs? shut down a bunch of them, and prevent large swathes of people from attending. voila!

        more seriously, there’s a correction that’s ongoing; about 60% of all colleges and universities didn’t make their classes last year, and the rate was over 70% for private 4 year schools. price is a huge factor, and competition on that point has led a lot of schools to fotz with their discount rates significantly just to fill seats. you’ll see both large and small public and private schools at charter school fairs in urban areas targeting populations they’d never have bothered to seek out only a few years ago. etc etc and so forth.

        things change.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        Man, I thought you guys were dissing on real river trips as an educational experience. I think a seven day raft trip in Utah (or another state, s’all good!) should be a core requirement for any self-respecting liberal arts-based institution, myself. Or even the engineering school. Not the B school tho. Those folks just aren’t very much fun.

        Nothin will educatatively change life like a long float.Report

    • Avatar LeeEsq says:

      I agree with this but there its perfectly possible to combine the second and third priorities, especially at the universities with cachet. To a large extent, college education in America was always about either getting a good job or having a wonderful experience than mind expanding education with the exception of the SLAC like Oberlin or religious universities like Bob Jones. The fun side of college life was how American media depicted it since at least the late 19th century.Report

  9. Avatar Stillwater says:

    I am starting to wonder if we are going to be entering a long-term cycle where almost every job and occupation has more supply than demand and this is going to lead to an ever-increasing amount of wage depression.

    Whelp, listening to Marketplace (on NPR) this week has taught me that unemployment is the lowest it’s been since ought-8 and yet (in defiance of the law of supply and demand, so they tell me) wages haven’t increased even so much as to keep pace with inflation. So I don’t know about the “entering” part, and I certainly don’t know nothin ’bout “long term cycles”, but wages aren’t going up, even as people go back to work.

    Tho it’s possible that the type of work and wages the Marketplace folks were addressing isn’t what your worried about.Report

    • Avatar Saul Degraw says:

      This is highly problematic too.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        I think it’s actually more problematic tho. The mere fact that there are a bunch of over lettered folks looking for that sweet landing spot they feel so entitled to seems like a smaller problem than that the majority of folks out there working for a living haven’t seen base wage increases (statistically measured against GDP relativized to Spending Power etc etc) for like, decades. Even as the investor class accumulates oodles of money.

        YOu’re problem is that you thought a JD was a ticket to the good life. Pretty soon, tho, if that doesn’t pan out, you’re gonna be one of those other incidental folks who just works for wages. Salaries will be for “other folks”.

        And I don’t mean for that to sound overly harsh. I’m paying off student loan debt for a degree (with lots of letters!) that I do not and have no intention of ever using. I just don’t write posts about the “X crisis” the forced me (sorta) to abandon the field. Like dex said: times change. Life changes too.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq says:

        If you think that elite overproduction can lead to great social instability than a bunch of pissed off over-letter folks is going to be a big problem.

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        Of course you missed the real point, Lee. Here’s the punchline from the link you provided, which it so happens is the punchline from my earlier which you’re so overly-lettered pissed-off about:

        The roots of the current American predicament go back to the 1970s, when wages of workers stopped keeping pace with their productivity. The two curves diverged: Productivity continued to rise, as wages stagnated.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        Btw, there must be a contemporary name for what you’re talking about here, where the petite bourgeoisie identifies with the haute cultyoor and all. Or something.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw says:


        Are you accusing us of having a case of false consciousness?Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:


      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        You two guys are the best argument I’ve seen yet that Hanley and Roger are 100% correct about liberals. Progressives. Whatever.

        You guys make me want to go libertarian.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw says:

        Except I’ve actually met and had dinner with @james-hanley and we got along great and we get long pretty well on this site so he doesn’t see me as being all that is wrong with liberals…

        But this doesn’t matter because you have already made up your mind. The petite bourgeoise comment was telling. What are you? A fifth generation Andover-Harvard scion who decided to abandon it all but are still willing to pull out old WASP elitism when it suits your purposes? How totes radical of you.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        Dude, I live the life of privilege and luxury that you dream about in your wildest fantasies. You should see the shoes I wear!Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw says:


        The difference is that you said you don’t intend to use your degree but you don’t sound why. The reasoning would seem to be more ideological and personal than market forces and graduating at the wrong time with your lots of letters degree and what not. How very medium chill of you.

        I intend to use my degree. Yeah I graduated into a bad market. Does that mean I (or anyone else should) not try to establish a career? Why? It seems pretty defeatist to give up right away. For what purpose? To serve as one more example for people to wail upon in the law school scam/crisis?Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:


        I don’t know what to say about that. How bout this: everyone loves you, you’re a truly exceptional person, and I’m sorry that you got shafted by “the law school crisis”.

        I mean, really. Dude. I’m sorry.Report

  10. Avatar Barry says:

    Saul: “I would place money that it is going to happen to computer coders and programmers in a few years.”

    I’d take that bet, and insist on those exact terms. However, it’s because this *has*happened; wages in software have been stagnant for years now.Report

  11. Avatar Rufus F. says:

    I keep trying to write a comment and failing because my level of anger and frustration on this topic is too high.Report

    • Avatar Saul Degraw says:

      I think it is vexing to lots of peopleReport

      • Avatar Rufus F. says:


        The thing about being embedded in the fabric of a society is that it’s something of a contract with the terms of that society. If you “buy in” to the norms of the society and work hard, the pay off is you can have a fairly stable life, perhaps start a family, and be somewhat fulfilled.

        On Monday, I turn 40 and it feels too late for any of that. While I can certainly accept that I made a poor life choice in going to university and then grad school for History, nearly everyone I know is in roughly the same financial position as I am, regardless of what they studied or did. The job market either doesn ‘t want them, or it wants them for short term contract positions that are far below their skill level and lead to nothing. The few friends I have who started their own businesses either got taxed into bankruptcy or are hanging on by their fingernails. And so, I know many, many people who are “starting over” in middle age because they forgot to read the fine print in this society’s contract.

        Admittedly, I am talking about Canada. Is the U.S. much better?Report

      • Avatar Saul DeGraw says:


        1. Happy Birthday

        2. Re: Social Contract. I agree with you but there are quite a few people here and probably around the world who question whether a social contract could even exist.

        3. I don’t know whether the US is better off than Canada. We are better off than many parts of Europe where unemployment is still high. Based on your posts I gather that Canada also has a surplus of academics. I don’t know if Canada has a surplus of lawyers or STEM types.
        I’ve seen hints that the UK might have produced a lawyer surplus just like the US did. I have friends who are doing okay to well and are hitting all the markers of “adult” life as in marriage, kids, homeownership, as they prefer. Many of these friends started off young for a capitalist career. I have other friends who are struggling to varying degrees.Report

      • @rufus-f @saul-degraw

        I know on this thread and similar ones I’ve played the role of “don’t be entitled because society doesn’t owe you anything.” But although that is roughly my position and although I sign on to most of what @j-r says above about what can/can’t be done, I recognize there’s real pain out there and people have fallen into the cracks and that’s not particularly fun.

        I’m teetering on the edge of potentially losing my own job because of budget cuts (and the people in charge are being frustratingly coy about whether they can renew my contract…mostly because they probably don’t know, either). So I share at least some of your anxiety.

        I do admit, however, that in many ways I’m probably in a better off position. I’m married to a wonderful woman, we’re economically secure (at the moment and knock-on-wood). I also lack the type of ambition that makes me want to be in a position comparable to “partner in a law firm” or “tenure-track professor,” although I would like a job with more permanence, and I sometimes I look back wistfully at the full-time customer service job I held at a call center about 11 years ago an wonder why I quit that to go to grad school.

        I still find it difficult to read this all as a contract/compact with which “society” isn’t holding its end of the bargain. But ask me in a few months if my more mundane employment contract doesn’t get renewed. I’m not entirely sure how I’ll hold up if/when it’s my own ox being gored.Report

      • I’m teetering on the edge of potentially losing my own job because of budget cuts

        Also, and regarding those budget cuts: I find it really difficult to justify not cutting the budget, and not firing me as a result of those cuts. I guess I have a hard time seeing why other people should pay for my particular job. I think I do good work, or at least conscientious work, but I just have a hard time conceptually seeing how taxpayers ought to fund me when there are so many other priorities. There are some very poor people in my state, and although it’s not as if the money the state would save from laying me off would necessarily got to more welfare, I also wonder if I’m not in my own small way part of the problem.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq says:

        Since we can’t guarantee continued prosperity or what the economy will look like into the future, there is probably no way to say that there is a social contract. However, when people are young its usually presented to them as “if you study and work very hard than you will get a job that will guarantee at least moderate prosperity.” Thats probably because telling kids that if the study and work hard, they increase their probability at achieving moderate probability is going to be a tougher sell.

        The economy is always going to change. Whats in demand one day will not be in demand the next. Technology is going to render some jobs obsolete. I just wish we as a society could deal with this in a more productive manner than “thats the way it is” and realize that just because a type of job becomes obsolete or at least suffers from a decrease in demand, doesn’t mean that the people who do those jobs disappear. Since jobs require a lot of training because of increased knowledge and complexity, retraining isn’t really possible.Report

      • @leeesq

        I just wish we as a society could deal with this in a more productive manner than “thats the way it is” and realize that just because a type of job becomes obsolete or at least suffers from a decrease in demand, doesn’t mean that the people who do those jobs disappear. Since jobs require a lot of training because of increased knowledge and complexity, retraining isn’t really possible.

        I do believe that “that’s the way it is” is part of any productive answer. It’s an invitation to realize that the world works a certain way and we have to start where we are. It’s not all of the answer, and by itself it can descent into cynical fyigm’ism. But it’s one component of finding an answer.

        I’ll also say that when it comes to grad school in the humanities/liberal arts, there’s is something like a “go against what society expects of you” element that goes into some people’s decision to get a grad degree. At least that was part of my reasoning: live a life of the mind, unlike those, like business majors, who just waddle on through, living the unexamined life. I obviously can’t speak for anyone else, but there does seem to be a certain bravado of bucking what society expects of them and if one is inclined to speak in terms of social contract, then there’s a certain way in which going to grad school is, for some people, a repudiation of that contract. (Also, if what I say is at all true of humanities/liberal arts, it’s not particularly true of law school, which, I understand, is generally sold as a practical measure.)

        All that said, you raise a very good point. People who are displaced don’t just disappear. And they do have real feelings and real needs. And it is callous just to say “that’s the way it is.” And I agree that retraining as a solution is only a partial one. (That informs, by the way, my principal reservations about freer trade and open-borders immigration. I’m mostly “pro” on both issues, but there is a cost that’s not always easily recouped.)Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq says:

        @gabriel-conroy, if “thats they way it is” only means that the economy and society does faces changes and transformation thats fine. I find that it too often becomes “cynical FYIGM”, where a person who trained to be a pharmacist or accountant, I’m not even going to write about liberal or fine arts majors at this point, is expected to do whatever work they can fine even if its being a barista or something. Even if “thats the way it is” is not used as cynical FYIGM, its often a way to justify inaction on a problem or even acknowledging the existence of a problem in the first place.Report

      • I think we agree in the broader brushstrokes, that is, “that’s the way it is” is grossly insufficient as an answer and can indeed be an excuse for doing nothing.

        Here’s where I think we disagree: I do think it’s not uncalled for if someone trained as an accountant, etc., finds they can at the moment work only a service job or an inferior, lesser paying other kind of job, to suggest they ought to consider taking that job, at least as a temporary measure. [ /awkward sentence ]

        I do think it behooves me, and anyone who takes my position, to refrain from judging others who don’t go that route. And I don’t always do the right thing in that regard.Report

  12. Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist says:

    Perhaps it really is time to restructure our adult education system. There was once a time when a person could get a 4 year degree & enjoy a reasonable expectation that they would spend the rest of their lives working in that field. Hence the cost in time & money to get the degree was worth it.

    Now, however, the job market is much more fluid & dynamic, while in many ways the traditional university education is not. So perhaps a change is needed.

    For your consideration (hopefully someone hasn’t said this above, I haven’t had a chance to read all the threads):

    Bring back the Associates degree. A person spends two years getting an AA or an AS or some other variant based upon their broad interests (the AA is the foundation of a classic liberal arts education, the AS is similar for the hard sciences, maybe an AB for Business).

    Once the Associates Degree is complete, people can shoot for the Bachelors, or Master’s, or Doctorate if they really want to specialize. Or they can start acquiring Certificates, either in order to seek a broader education, or to better customize their education to their career goals at this moment.

    The whole point of this is to make education more flexible, so a person who needs to retrain because they want a career change, or their career is drying up or is experiencing an over-supply, can do so with relative ease & moderate expense.

    Case in point, I’m taking a certificate program now for Software Development Project Management. It’s a 3 class program, done over 9 months, that covers the business side of developing a new software package (from inception through marketing & delivery). It’s allowing me to better shift my career to follow a new trajectory. My wife did something similar last year, learning the basics of GIS so she can leverage her library degree with GIS data to make herself more attractive to other groups within her company.

    Certificate programs are becoming more popular, can be more finely targeted to a subject, and are much more flexible. They are also more & more accepted by employers.Report

    • Avatar Kim says:

      Nobody wants generalists anymore.
      SV wants to hire specialists on their current fad — ruby on rails, or whatever.
      When the fad ends, send the folks back to India, where they can live in relative luxury (programmers be cheap).
      Hire new people.

      These folks may not have the best understanding of the fundamentals, as they’re only trained on the latest fad.Report

    • Avatar Saul Degraw says:


      I think this is intriguing but it might also amount to a collective action problem.

      Some questions though:

      When did the associate degree go away? From what I read, associates degrees are more common now and then ever and our community colleges are packed with people trying to get them. Many of these people are non-traditional students. I’ve seen many articles that say the average college student is no longer the stereotypical 18-22 year old who resides at college for four years. We have lots of adults going back to get degrees and remain relevant. Some people would say that this glut is part of the problem and that a lot of people in community colleges are very lacking in remedial skills and knowledge. One version of this story is a series of essays called “In the Basement of the Ivory Tower.” CCSF is a fight for its accreditdation because of too many people failing to graduate. Apparently the big bulk of the student debt problem is from older adults who attend community college and/or for-profit universities and then drop out.

      One thing many people advocate for is spending two years in CC to drive down costs. This seems fairly common in California. During my years on the East Coast, I think going to CC would have been seen as being a bit of an academic failure instead of an economically wise thing to do.

      The collective action problem is I am not sure how many industries are really suited for constant certification and you would need to have employers willing to be the first ones to take the risk. Plus you create another problem of people constantly needing to recertify.Report

      • Avatar North says:

        It could be cyclical possibly? We need employment to get up to the point where employers genuinely feel pinched and no longer have the luxury of simply leaving jobs vacant while they wait for the ubermensch candidate to volonteer to work for peanuts?Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        Like most things, everything’s cyclical until it isn’t, anymore. And then the world changes.
        We’re coming up on one of those changepoints now.
        We know just about everything important now, it’s just the tinkering engineers need to finish off their work.Report

      • Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist says:

        The degree is still there, but it doesn’t seem to carry the weight it used to (something even the BA/BS is suffering from a bit). This dovetails with what you are saying about CC not being seen as a wise choice. Which is strange, since that is exactly what I did & no one I’ve ever met has wondered if my BS is not as valuable because I spent two years at MATC instead of the UW. The bulk of the value in the Bachelor degree is in the latter half, not the former.

        But, notice your comment, the bulk of the Associates come from tech schools, NOT universities. Why? Is it a value question, or an economic one?

        Also, I’m talking about long term restructuring. This would not address current issues with regard to adults dropping out, but accreditation would need to be sorted out if any of this is to have value.

        Anyway, the whole point is that not every job needs a 4 year degree, but many require them because it signals things employers want to see. A lot of that signalling is actually satisfied in the first two years of school, so why not create valuable Associates. We could have an Arts, Science, Business, Technical*, etc. Degrees. Get the degree, then take a break if you need to. With robust accreditation, it would be valuable at whatever school you went back to, for either a bachelors, or just to round out with some certificates.

        As for a glut of re-certifying, what do you think professionals do now, with all the continuing adult education classes & whatnot?

        *Technical Associates would be a general skilled trades degree.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw says:


        A couple of theories:

        1. I wonder how common it really is to go to Community College and then go to University. I’ve always been learned from the culture that community college is where you went if your high school grades were not that great in order to boost yourself up to getting into a good university. I did not learn from the culture that it is where you were supposed to go for your first two years of higher education as a universal fact. I also grew up on the East Coast where the default (at least among my upper-middle class suburban set) was to aim for the prestigious private colleges and universities. I think this is socio-cultural and also because the Northeast as a much longer history of sending their best to private over public institutions. Part of this is an idea that you need to spend four years at Cornell, Harvard, Vassar, and Yale to reap all the benefits and experiences of the name of said school. Coming in as a junior does not work because friendships and connections were already formed. When I came out to the West Coast, I was surprised about how much the UCs and the CSUs were generally the norm even for my friends who grew up upper-middle class and had K-12 at expensive private schools for the most part There were still people who went East for school or to Stanford or Reed or the Claremonts or USC but the UCs and CSUs seem to be the default. I admit that the UCs are much better than the SUNYs (State University of New York).

        So there is a lot of culture here depending on where you grew up, your socio-economic status, and a whole lot of other factors. I am glad I did all four-years at the same institution without transferring I do have life-long friends from it. I think it would have been hard to earn those friends if I did two years at a community college and then transferred. Also because I was a drama major, I needed to be with my cohort for all four years for trust reasons so we could work together. It would have been very hard to come in after everyone had two years of class and production experience together.

        2.An Associates degree from a tech school is probably more utilitarian than an Associate degree in English or French. I am fully supportive of the liberal arts and humanities but they probably require at least a Bachelors to show usefulness. I think it is both about economics and socio-cultural values and also history. A brief study of wikipedia tells me that Associate degrees have always been mainly offered at tech schools and community colleges.

        3. Fair point on continuing education.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        While it doesn’t matter on a resume, going to a juco (CC) can definitely cut into the networking effects of going to college. Not just the semi-elite ones that @saul-degraw refers to, but including a lot of public schools.

        If we’re tight on money, I might recommend that Lain and any future children go the juco route, but we’re going to do whatever we can so that it isn’t necessary.

        Which is to say… juco may be the wise course in this age of exorbitant tuition costs, but I generally consider it to be suboptimal (if it can be avoided).Report

      • Avatar Glyph says:

        “I’ve always been learned from the culture that community college is where you went if your high school grades were not that great”


      • Avatar Saul Degraw says:


        And this is what happens if I type and press publish without proofreading.

        When I was growing up, I just picked up from the culture around me that you went to community college if you largely got Cs and Ds in high school. Then you busted your ass to get As and get into a good school for the last two years of university. In short, it was for the kids who probably could not get into a four-year school off the bat.

        At no point during my childhood did I hear people recommend going to community college for two years in order to lower your tuition.

        I will add that in California it is allegedly much easier to get into UC-Berkeley after two years of community college than from high school because admissions standards for transfer students are more relaxed than they are for high school students. This is what I’ve heard from my friends. I don’t think this is going to be true at Yale.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        I’ve known people to go to juco for three reasons:

        1) Their grades weren’t good enough to get into the university of their choice. I don’t mean that they couldn’t get into a good school. Just not the school they really wanted to go to where having good grades isn’t enough (Something like Georgia Tech, Florida, UNC, Texas etc.)

        2) Financial concerns.

        3) They flunked out of one university and they had to spend some time in juco to repair their academic record so that they could go to another (good) university.

        4) Convenience.

        From my cohort, it’s mostly #1 and #2 and only a couple #3 and none from #4.

        I took juco classes a couple of years. The overwhelming percentage of my classmates were, I suspect, in #2 or #4.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        I will add that in California it is allegedly much easier to get into UC-Berkeley after two years of community college than from high school because admissions standards for transfer students are more relaxed than they are for high school students. This is what I’ve heard from my friends. I don’t think this is going to be true at Yale.

        Not just California. This was what I was getting at from #1. At many really good state schools, they love transfers. So a school that’s really difficult to get into otherwise becomes more feasible through junior college.Report

      • Avatar James Hanley says:

        I’ll add a 5th to your 3 reasons.

        Because you dropped out of college, owe money so you can’t get a transcript and transfer, and jucos don’t demand transcripts from your former school, so you can get back to taking classes more quickly.Report

      • Avatar Glyph says:

        For me it was always financial concerns. My HS grades were OK, not stellar by any means but I was an A/B student with the occasional C in math or chemistry. But I had absolutely no interest in borrowing.

        And I couldn’t (or wouldn’t) do as at least one of my later university roommates did and claim minority status/ancestry to avail myself of financial aid (at the time, that irritated me somewhat; but he was rural, dirt-poor/first-gen college, and hey, who knows, there COULD have been Native American back there *somewhere* on his dad’s side; he looked the part, but that was just because his mom was Vietnamese; last I heard he’s a schoolteacher, and now I don’t a bit begrudge him bettering his lot by hustling and doing what he thought he had to do then).

        I was white (debated claiming “Hispanic”, since on my dad’s side we go way, WAY back, but it would have felt like a cheat) and *just* middle class enough to not qualify for aid; but *also* not wealthy enough to just throw cash at 4 years of even a middling state school.

        Again, I realize things are much more expensive now than they used to be, but it was 25 years ago that *I* got the message that doing two years of community college was one way to help make the unaffordable, semi-affordable.

        If it wasn’t some obscure cultural secret (at least, not in all cultural corners) two and a half decades ago, I can’t imagine it’s more secret now.

        Welcome to The Struggle, it’s Real.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq says:

        Glyph, your Dad’s Sephardic?Report

      • Avatar Kazzy says:


        Your roommate’s mom being Vietnamese wouldn’t be enough to qualify him for “minority” status?Report

      • Avatar Glyph says:

        @kazzy – for whatever reason, at that time and place, no; or at least, it wouldn’t qualify him for as much aid as claiming Native American status did. His dad was an American GI. No idea if things are different now.

        @leeesq – not AFAIK, though it might help explain our, ah…PROUD noses.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy says:


        Got it. So he specifically claimed NA status. Interesting.Report

      • Avatar Glyph says:

        @leeesq – so I looked up the Sephardic wiki page. I’d be in illustrious company for sure. Check the head shots on the right.

        I can’t say whether the Spaniards got those noses from the Jews or whether the Jews got them from the Spaniards (or whether they all got them from the Romans); all I can say is, I see a LOT of noses that look like mine and my dad’s on that page.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman says:

        @kazzy I think that, in this context, being Vietnamese is being Asian is being more of an obstacle than a benefit on a college application.Report

      • Avatar Glyph says:

        @will-truman – I have no idea if his claimed NA status played into his actual admission; just that it got him significant financial aid to attend.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        I worked at a community college my last year of high school. (East Coastish)

        Most of the people I saw there were folks who had a job, sometimes two. These were people actively supporting a family, often enough, while getting through school.

        They also tended to be at least mid-twenties, if not older.Report

      • Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist says:

        Re: JuCo

        OK, yes, the culture of disdain for JuCo will have to be overcome, but that is quite honestly on the Universities themselves, & our public schools who do a bad job of expressing such places as legitimate options.

        Also, one other reason a person might go to a JuCo – military service. Most universities will not take an enlisted veteran as a freshman, as they consider the vets training to count as prior education (with some exceptions). This means any vet who wants to go to a university starts out in a JuCo in order to gain enough transfer credits to qualify.

        Thus you have an entire class of people who have no choice but to attend JuCo, all other potential reasons notwithstanding. If such a path is good enough for them…

        Also, the value of a degree from a JuCo varies. E.g. in Madison, MATC worked closely with the UW in order to fashion classes that the UW accepts as transfer credits (called College Parallel). These were the basic freshman & sophomore classes (History, Comp, Lit, Art, Physics, Chemistry, Math up through Calc, etc). I’m sure this is not a unique relationship, and we could easily encourage Universities without such (both public & private) to develop similar relationships with nearby JuCos. Thus an AA or AS from a tech school need not be utilitarian.

        And yes, transfer students tend to have relaxed entry standards, because they’ve already shown they can handle college material.

        Also, networking: YMMV, but the bulk of my undergrad networking was done in my junior & senior years. A person may form friendships early in school, but your value as someone whom another is willing to stake part of their reputation on is shown in those later semesters on the complex projects.

        Anyway, all that aside, the main point remains: the 4+ year path to a BA/BS or MA/MS, coupled with the expense of doing so, creates a workforce that has a hard time being flexible to the changing labor marketplace. Part of that is a lack of imagination on the part of the students, but hey, most people have a hard time being imaginative when stressed about how to pay the bills & the loans. Part of it is the tendency of some schools to obsess over training the next generation of academics (something that honestly should only happen to students who have started grad school). Part of it is the level of focus of some degrees that makes it difficult to find work not on that track.

        And part of it is the academy itself, with it’s insistence in many ways of forcing students onto traditional educational tracks, instead of letting students find their own way (i.e. Universities give considerable preference to traditional students, and usually limit guest & special student access to classes).

        A system that started with the Associates, then let everyone find their own path would be more flexible, especially if coupled with MOOCS. Education could be had at one’s own pace, allowing for greater control of costs by the student,and better targeting of interests. The Associates would be the key, the barrier to entry to limit the aimless student & the student who is not suited for college or trade school.

        Imagine students who get an AA or AS, then, if they are not sure what they want to do, they can stop, get a low level job & figure things out. Maybe complete a few programs on the side to build up the CV. Or they can shoot for the BA/BS. Companies could start advertising for workers with certain certificates types, or they could work with nearby schools to create certificate programs that meet their more specific needs. Perhaps Boeing could create a Mechanics program that, if completed successfully, would guarantee you a spot of the job list ahead of those who didn’t (spitballing here, now).Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        I suspect that, even as the price goes up, the university degree itself is being somewhat devalued.

        I don’t know how much of this is due to the scarcity premium.Report

    • Avatar LeeEsq says:

      On a related note, I’d be interested in finding out whether more stratified and less egalitarian education systems, like the multi-track ones in several European countries, are suffering from the same glut related issues in the job market.

      American educational policy has always been aimed at getting as many people to the highest level of education as possible. The egalitarian instinct in American society requires this. Very few American parents are going to react kindly to being told that their kid should be trained to be a worker rather than a doctor. Its why vocational education in the United States has been kind of spotty.Report

  13. Avatar Patrick says:

    At many really good state schools, they love transfers.

    Always take the immigrants when they come with skills, that means you spend less time training them in the basics.Report

    • Avatar Will Truman says:

      I figure that a big part of it is that transfers are more of a known commodity. Success at juco is likely to be more indicative of success at University than success in high school is.

      I am under the impression that entry level courses are the most cost effective for schools. Bigger classes, less prestigious faculty, etc.Report

      • Avatar dhex says:

        many colleges, including 4 year private colleges, actively pursue transfers. they come in with skills, as noted above, wash out at lower rates, and are more focused and driven presumably because of the extra work they had to do to get there. guaranteed transfer agreements are definitely a thing these days.Report