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After a COVID-blighted final term at Edinburgh University my son is training to be a primary school teacher. Many other graduates are looking out on a more uncertain future. But behind the disruption caused by the pandemic looms a bigger misalignment of skills and human expectations that is starting to impact most rich societies.
The notion that a good degree and prestigious professional job is the root to security and success is still alive and well in the minds of most parents, and indeed policy makers. Yet for many graduates it is a dwindling likelihood. It turns out that the knowledge economy does not need so many knowledge workers. The era of the steady expansion of the class of academically trained professionals is drawing to a close.
In developed countries, membership of the top two social classes, the higher and lower ends of the professional/managerial class, has typically grown to around one third of the adult population: as the economy demanded more highly educated workers, higher education expanded to provide them. That growth in professional jobs has now almost ground to a halt.
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And even before artificial intelligence starts shredding the middling and lower-end cognitive jobs in law, accountancy, administration, medicine and so on, there has been a sharp decline in the pay of the average graduate job in most rich countries as diminishing returns set in.
Already many graduates fill GBP 22,000-a-year, clerical-type jobs – often the same jobs done by their non-graduate peers. Academics Phil Brown and Hugh Lauder talk about “digital Taylorism”, the routinisation of cognitive work that once demanded thought and judgement.
A broad graduate elite is preferable to the narrow one when I went to college. But without the high status jobs that its members expect, it’s creating a crisis of disappointed expectations that has probably contributed to radical eruptions such as the Bernie Sanders movement.
Moreover, the unprecedented investment in research universities has not prevented the recent decline in productivity, and some economists even argue the decline may be partly caused by the growth of the cognitive bureaucracy. At the same time, we have a crisis of recruitment in many corners of the public care economy and in middle-skill technical jobs and skilled trades.
The idea of a successful life has become too focused on one set of human skills, and we have created just one big ladder up into it: the modern university.
Meanwhile, the idea of meritocracy itself has taken a battering following new books from Daniel Markovits, Michael Sandel and others. All of them stress the impossibility of a fair meritocracy in any free society that allows families to pass on advantage. But they also highlight the inherent undesirability of turning society into a competition in which the most able win and many of the rest feel like failures. We still need selection by merit into relevant jobs, especially top jobs, but that does not require a society that disproportionately values those adept at manipulating information.
My own new book—Head, Hand, Heart—echoes some of these ideas but places more emphasis on the imbalance that modern societies have created between the cluster of aptitudes corresponding to those three body parts. We have made Head academic ability too much the gold standard of esteem while status, reward and meaning have drained away from many Hand (manual/technical) and Heart (caring/nurturing) functions, contributing to the political alienation of recent years.
Find out more about Head, Hand, Heart: The Struggle for Dignity and Status in the 21st Century by David Goodhart
The idea of a successful life has become too focused on one set of human skills, and we have created just one big ladder up into it: the modern university. Until recently there were more small ladders, and a wider notion of a successful life.
Of course, high intelligence is as useful today as ever: we need knowledge creators to develop a COVID vaccine and work out how to suck carbon out of the atmosphere. But most academically trained people are not creating new knowledge, and there is less innovative thinking in most lower level cognitive jobs; there will, in any case, be fewer such jobs in the future. However, there will be more jobs in care and technical functions requiring less of an academic training and more emotional and practical intelligence. There is more than one scale of human worth.
When I started writing my book I thought the idea of spreading status more evenly between Head, Hand and Heart was idealistic. By the time I finished I was convinced it was inevitable if our growing number of old people are to be well cared for, and the machines that govern our lives are to be properly maintained. The recognition of the vital role of the mainly non-graduate “key workers” in the pandemic was a step in the right direction.
And if western countries can do something as improbable as partially close their economies and collectively underwrite the incomes of millions, public policy can surely help to nudge status and reward a bit more evenly across the heads, hands and hearts.
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