The Educated Class and Its Discontents

In a Special Report on Germany in the Economist recently, the traditional German system of education, while excellent at producing great engineers and skilled trade workers, came under criticism for its rigidity and unfairness. In Germany, ten-year-olds are marked out for either a career of manual labour (skilled or otherwise), white-collar work, or the bureaucratic/professional work that comes after university, and sent to separate schools accordingly. Ten is too young, its critics argue, to give a child a direction for life, which will become difficult to change later on with guild-like labour markets that prohibit entry into professions without the right qualifications. And many complain that Germany does not have equality of opportunity. Family background is more likely to determine test scores and social status in life in Germany than it is in any other country.

With any talk of equality of opportunity, it comes up again, that old aspirational myth of moving between classes, the Horatio Alger or perhaps Will Hunting story of a genius saved from poverty by good education, mentoring or his own perseverance to rise to a different class. Because it is about class. Germans (and the writers of the Economist) are not concerned as much about eventual income distribution, which is quite fair, as they are about having the opportunity to do something else: move up the social ladder.

Focusing on class seems to be a very Old Europe thing. Only in Europe do we see that holdover of a very, very privileged elite (or aristocracy) that has old family wealth, and a poor or working class that never really seems to shrink outside of meddling with statistics, and isn’t going to because those within it have a sense of pride in being working class. A recent article on class and politics in Britian in the Economist seems to describe the six established statistical class divisions as essentially fixed. David Cameron must appeal to the same middle-class voters as Margaret Thatcher, who appreciated their aspirations to “improve their homes and their lives; to get gradually better cars, washing machines and televisions; to go on holiday in Spain rather than Bournemouth.” Hardly a rapid rise to the upper echelons of power – really just a desire to keep up with what is expected from being “middle class.”

In fact, it seems the most common way of achieving a material increase in living standards is immigration. The quality of life is much higher in “New World” countries like Canada and Australia because the basic cost of living is less, while health care and education are still available at the same high standard, or higher. It’s hard not to notice that eight out of 10 cities ranked “most liveable” by the Economist last year were in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

And there is more opportunity for movement between classes in the New World (a term I’ll keep using despite the fact that it makes me sound like Columbus, because I can’t think of a better one), not least because there is less emphasis on “class” in general as something that matters, at least explicitly. The class system of North America has less of a focus on income and history and more on the combination of these with other factors, such as education. My theory is that because New World societies were formed based on merit, and evolved with much less distinction based on income or family wealth (since most everyone was a poor immigrant upon arrival), education and occupation became the primary means of separating out the kind of people with whom one should associate.

The North American system is thus designed to provide more equality of opportunity. In theory, all have the same access to education, even, in some ways, up to the university level. It is a noble goal, and higher education is certainly more accessible in Commonwealth and countries and the US than in continental Europe, as this 2005 study ranking university enrollment in developed countries shows.

But the result of our comparatively open and well-attended university system has been a generation or two of liberal arts or natural science graduates who spend ten years flailing around the entry-level job market before eventually settling into corporate middle management in a completely unrelated field somewhere, making essentially they same money they would have had they been pre-classified at age ten as they do in Germany. Most look back fondly on the days they spent at university, but more for the social connections they made than the time spent reading Cicero. And we, as a society, have trouble finding enough people to sell us mortgages or build our houses, because there aren’t really university programs that teach those skills. Universities have become training grounds for the “middle class” as a whole – including the low end of white collar work – instead of training grounds for occupations where they actually provide valuable preparation, that is, the “upper middle class” work of medicine, law, academia and the like.

If nothing else, we North Americans are certainly losing efficiency with all of this finding ourselves that comes after attaining our university qualifications. We’ve also created a society in which having a B.A. means you’re under-qualified for many jobs – either in experience, or because everyone else applying also has an M.A. or the college-level diploma which is all that’s really required to do the job. It isn’t going to change, though, because we value two things too highly: our “right” to attend school (especially university) for as long as we want to, and the class position that doing so will get us.

True, recently there has been a real push by the government and colleges to recognize skilled labour and professional work as viable career options for high school graduates to consider, and one often hears flippant comments about the world needing more plumbers and electricians, who “actually make a fair bit of money.” (Reality check: this website puts a plumber’s average hourly wage at $24 in Toronto, which over a year works out to about $47 000. This is around what your average white collar worker earns, at least at first, and a plumber doesn’t carry the same student loan debt.)

But while the logic of matching skills to actual jobs may have (almost) caught up, the overall effect on what class one will end up in has not. Doctors and lawyers are still far more likely to associate with white collar workers who have attended university than electricians who earn the same amount, because education and occupation are still important class signifiers.

What would it take to change these biases? And would changing the biases reverse the trend toward hiring managers requiring ever-more degrees when hiring someone to answer telephones and make photocopies? Is there a happy medium between the German and North American systems, where there is still mobility between classes, and still equality of opportunity, but more cultural acceptance that skilled trades and professional work is a respectable way to earn a living? I’m not sure – but for all that, I would still struggle to recommend that anybody give up learning about politics or history or biology and instead learn about practical data models in order to secure a job. We are fortunate to have the privilege of being able to buy those three or four (or more) years of time to learn. I would advise anybody who asked to enjoy it while it lasts, because there’s plenty of time for uninspiring desk work later, if they so choose.

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