The Dwindling Power of a College Degree

J.R. Eyerman/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images  A drafter at work, 1952. By ADAM DAVIDSON Published: November 23, 2011      * Recommend     * Twitter     * Linkedin     * comments (235)     * Sign In to E-Mail     * Print     * Single Page     *       Reprints     * ShareClose           o Digg           o Reddit           o Tumblr           o Permalink o  The 2012 presidential election can be seen as offering a choice between two visions of how to return us to this country’s golden age — from roughly 1945 to around 1973 — when working life was most secure for many Americans, particularly white, middle-class men. President Obama said his jobs plan was for people who believed “if you worked hard and played by the rules, you would be rewarded.” Mitt Romney explained his goal was to restore hope for “folks who grew up believing that if they played by the rules . . . they would have the chance to build a good life.” But these days, many workers have lost a near guarantee on a decent wage and benefits — and their careers are likely to have much more volatility (great years; bad years; confusing, mediocre years) than their parents’ ever did. So when did the rules change?  Deep Thoughts This Week  1. The economic rules have been changing since the '70s.  2. The U.S. produces a large number of workers whose skills aren't needed.  3. Inequality is even more rampant than you think.  4. Time to consider getting a master's. Multimedia Graphic Inequality Between Professions Enlarge This Image Shout  It used to be that if you worked hard, you were guaranteed a certain kind of life. There are reasons success is no longer a straight shot. Readers’ Comments      Readers shared their thoughts on this article.      * Read All Comments (235) »  It has been hard to keep track. Over the past four decades, we have experienced the oil embargo, Carter-era malaise and a few recessions. Mixed in were the thrills of the late 1990s and mid-aughts, when it seemed as if you were a sap if you weren’t getting rich or at least trying. But these dramas prevented many of us from realizing that the economic logic was changing fundamentally. Starting in the 1970s, labor was upended by a lot more than just formal government work rules. Increased global trade devastated workers in many industries, especially textiles, apparel, toys, furniture and electronics assembly. Computers and other technological innovations had an arguably greater impact. While factories continue to make more stuff in the United States than ever before, employment in them has collapsed.  Computers have hurt workers outside factories too. Picture the advertising agency in “Mad Men,” and think about the abundance of people who were hired to do jobs that are now handled electronically by small machines. Countless secretaries were replaced by word processing, voice mail, e-mail and scheduling software; accounting staff by Excel; people in the art department by desktop design programs. This is also true of trades like plumbing and carpentry, in which new technologies replaced a bunch of people who most likely stood around helping measure things and making sure everything worked correctly.  As a result, the people whose jobs remained valuable in that “Mad Men” office were then freed up to do more valuable things. A talented art director could produce more work more quickly with InDesign. A bright accountant could spend more time thinking of new ways to make and save money, rather than spending endless hours punching numbers into an adding machine. Global trade works much the same way. It’s horrible news for a textile factory worker in North Carolina, but it may be great for a fashion designer in New York.  A general guideline these days is that people are rewarded when they can do things that take trained judgment and skill — things, in other words, that can’t be done by computers or lower-wage workers in other countries. Money now flows around the world so quickly, and technology changes so fast, that people who thought they were in high demand find themselves uprooted. Many newspaper reporters have learned that their work was subsidized, in part, by classified ads and now can’t survive the rise of Craigslist; computer programmers have found out that some smart young guys in India will do their jobs for much less. Meanwhile, China lends so much money to the United States that mortgage brokers and bond traders can become richer than they ever imagined for a few years and then, just as quickly, become broke and unemployed.  One of the greatest changes is that a college degree is no longer the guarantor of a middle-class existence. Until the early 1970s, less than 11 percent of the adult population graduated from college, and most of them could get a decent job. Today nearly a third have college degrees, and a higher percentage of them graduated from nonelite schools. A bachelor’s degree on its own no longer conveys intelligence and capability. To get a good job, you have to have some special skill — charm, by the way, counts — that employers value. But there’s also a pretty good chance that by some point in the next few years, your boss will find that some new technology or some worker overseas can replace you.      * 1     * 2   Next Page »  Adam Davidson is a founder NPR's “Planet Money,” a podcast, blog and radio series heard on “Morning Edition,” “All Things Considered” and “This American Life.” A version of this article appeared in print on November 27, 2011, on page MM16 of the Sunday Magazine with the headline: When Did The Rules Change?.      * comments (235)     * Sign In to E-Mail     * Print     * Single Page     *       Reprints  Cyber Monday Only: Save 50% for 26 weeks on a Digital Subscription. What's This? Sponsored Headlines Sponsored Links      * Entrepreneur.comEmployees' Facebook Pages Are Private, Until They're Not     * Digital TrendsBest Online Retailers     * CFO WorldWhat Adobe's Decision to Kill Mobile Flash Means to You     * CIOMacs in Your Business: Expert Management Guide  Get Free E-mail Alerts on These Topics      * Labor and Jobs     * Wages and Salaries     * United States Economy     * Banking and Financial Institutions  Ads by Google	what's this? Registered Nurse Programs Equip Yourself With Current Skills & Knowledge at MCI. Contact Us Now! www.Medical.edu/RN Log In With Facebook  Log in to see what your friends are sharing on nytimes.com. Privacy Policy | What’s This? What’s Popular Now  Ken Russell, Controversial Director, Dies at 84  The Price of Intolerance      * MOST E-MAILED     * MOST VIEWED     * RECOMMENDED FOR YOU  	1.	 Should We All Go Gluten-Free? 	2.	 With Blocks, Educators Go Back to Basics 	3.	 Op-Ed Columnist Things to Tax 	4.	 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The 2012 presidential election can be seen as offering a choice between two visions of how to return us to this country’s golden age — from roughly 1945 to around 1973 — when working life was most secure for many Americans, particularly white, middle-class men. President Obama said his jobs plan was for people who believed “if you worked hard and played by the rules, you would be rewarded.” Mitt Romney explained… Read More

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College vs. Experience [Infographic]

infographic

Not everyone can be a Gates, Allen, Jobs, or Zuckerberg—founders who dropped out of college and went on to change the technology industry by starting landmark companies. But there are more options available for budding entrepreneurs these days, most notably the explosion of incubators, accelerators, and other startup nurseries that help young companies get off the ground. Today in Seattle, the local branch of the national TechStars program will unleash its latest… Read More

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Brainy And Famous: Celebrities With Degrees

college degree

Maybe they’re just lucky, or maybe they sold their souls like Faust to achieve their wild success. Whatever the case may be, it is not fair that these people exist. You will be asking yourself “What am I doing with my life” in 5…4…3…2.. 1. James Franco Although the idea of becoming a marine zoologist interested him, Franco had always secretly wanted to become an actor but feared rejection. He enrolled at… Read More

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