Education, Jobs, and Wages

Most people are surprised when I tell them that only about 30% of Americans over the age of 25 have bachelor’s degrees.  This is especially true of professional middle-class folks who went to high schools where almost everybody went to college immediately after graduation and whose friends now are almost all college graduates.  But it’s also true of people from working-class and poor backgrounds, who seem to think they are “abnormal” or “below average” because they haven’t graduated from college.  They’re not.  They are, in fact, the ones who are “typical.”

It’s even more surprising, however, when the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that in 2010 only 20% of jobs required a bachelor’s degree, whereas 26% of jobs did not even require a high school diploma, and another 43% required only a high school diploma or equivalent.  And according to the BLS, this isn’t going to change much by 2020, since the overwhelming majority of jobs by then will still require only a high school diploma or less.  What’s more, nearly 3/4ths of “job openings due to growth and replacement needs” over the next 10 years will pay a median wage of less than $35,000 a year, with nearly 30% paying a median of about $20,000 a year (in 2010 dollars).

Put these two sets of numbers together, and it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Americans are over educated for the jobs that we have and are going to have.  It’s hard to imagine why anybody would call us “a knowledge economy.”   It’s also hard to see how “in the 21st century, the best anti-poverty program around is a first-class education,” as President Obama famously said in his 2010 State of the Union Address.

I don’t want to say that these statistics on education and jobs expose widely held “myths,” because that word suggests things that are utterly and completely false.  It’s much more complicated than that.  Rather, I’d say that broadly speaking, about one-third of Americans live in one world, while another two-thirds live in a rather different one, but that public discourse – in the mainstream media, for sure, but even more so in elite media and the academy – is conducted by the one-third who are college-educated and have jobs with a fair amount of autonomy and/or a decent income.  This one-third mistakenly takes our world to be typical – or said another way, the educated middle class tends to mistake our part of America for the whole.  And the larger working-class and poor part does not have enough power or voice to consistently make their presence known to us.  That means we are subject to certain uncorrected illusions – mistaking half-truths and quarter-truths for the whole truth — even though we’re the ones who collect and analyze the data.

There is, for example, a large and growing “knowledge economy” in the U.S., requiring more than 6 million people with master’s or doctoral degrees now, with another 1.3 million needed by 2020.  But even with this faster-than-average growth rate, it will be less than 5% of the overall economy.   Even if we expand the definition to include jobs requiring any education beyond high school, the “knowledge economy” – now and a decade from now –will still represent less than one-third of all available jobs.  This is a lot of jobs, about 44 million now, and if you work and live in this one-third, especially in its upper reaches, more education can seem like the answer to everything.  Indeed, according to the BLS, having a bachelor’s degree should yield a person nearly $30,000 a year more in wages than a high school graduate.

But most of the American economy is not like this.  The BLS’s three largest occupational categories by themselves accounted for more than one-third of the workforce in 2010 (49 million jobs), and they will make an outsized contribution to the new jobs projected for 2020.  They are:

  • Office and administrative support occupations (median wage of $30,710)
  • Sales and related occupations ($24,370)
  • Food preparation and serving occupations ($18,770)

Other occupations projected to provide the largest number of new jobs in the next decade include child care workers ($19,300), personal care aides ($19,640), home health aides ($20,560), janitors and cleaners ($22,210), teacher assistants ($23,220), non-construction laborers ($23,460), security guards ($23,920), and construction laborers ($29,280).

There are still construction, mining, production, and transportation and material-moving jobs that provide annual incomes north of $40,000 (especially if they are union).  But even though all these occupations are projected to grow, some by above-average rates, in 2020 there will be fewer of them than there were in 2006 before the Great Recession, 2.3 million fewer according to the BLS.

The BLS produces its job-projection report every two years, and as I pointed out two years ago, it is consistently misreported in the mainstream media or (as this year) ignored all together.  This is partly because the just-the-facts BLS reporting style does not highlight the continuing growth of the low-wage economy.   But read it carefully – or just look at all the tables with an open mind – and I don’t think you can avoid two general conclusions:

  • As an individual, get a bachelor’s degree or you are doomed to work hard for a wage that will not provide a decent standard of living for a family.  You may not get such a wage even with a bachelor’s degree, but without it your chances are slim and getting slimmer.
  • But as a society, “the best anti-poverty program around” cannot possibly be “a first-class education” when more than 2/3rds of our jobs require nothing like that.  The best anti-poverty program around is higher wages for the jobs we actually have and will have.

If we were serious about eliminating poverty or restoring the credibility of the American Dream or simply respecting lifetimes of hard work, we would be debating how to raise wages directly – how to make it easier for workers to organize themselves into unions, how to get the federal minimum wage higher and on a steady inflation-adjusted escalator, whether to require some kind of workers council for all employers, and then legally require that the benefits of productivity growth be shared with workers.  We’d also be discussing how to use a more steeply progressive system of taxation to build a social wage that makes the basics of life – food, housing, mass transit, child care, education, and health care – cheaper for everyone, but most crucially for lower wage workers.

Those of us who have benefitted, financially and otherwise, from getting good educations should tell our stories and try to inspire others with the value of education in all its forms.  But we need to stop fostering illusions that good educations can ever substitute for the organized collective action – in politics, in the workplace, and in the streets – that will be required to reverse the increasingly miserable wages and conditions most people are facing now and in the future.

Jack Metzgar

Chicago Working-Class Studies

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16 responses to “Education, Jobs, and Wages

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  8. Meanwhile, in the Land Of Oz:
    “Report: College enrollment growing too slowly”
    http://today.seattletimes.com/2012/03/report-college-enrollment-growing-too-slowly/

    Reporting like this, coupled with non-stop advertising by colleges selling an education as a ticket to jobs that are either scarce, or don’t exist at all, and you get this perception among far too many people that college is the answer.

    It’s a lot like the way home ownership was spun as a way to improved class status, until the bubble brought it all down. I guess one could say that we’re on the verge of a “higher education bubble”, as the burden of student loan debt continues to weigh down on the economy as a whole. Fortunately, the extortionately high cost, plus the lack of jobs for current college graduates is likely to keep a lot of young people away from a decision that has a better chance of leading them down the road to economic ruin, rather than prosperity.

  9. I remember having a conversation about politics many years ago, 2000 to be exact, with a man I would describe as your typical gay male Seattleite. He responded to my use of the term “working class” by saying that I shouldn’t even say that. Why? Because most people in Seattle have college degrees. Whether or not you have one, it doesn’t change the fact that you’re working class if you’re a Starbucks barista. Interesting position to be taken by a man whose openness about his sexual orientation has been enabled by a movement that had the exact opposite approach to his “don’t say that” position on the reality of the class status of most Americans.

    So I think we need a “coming out” movement that encourages working class people, especially us white working class people, to come out of the closet about our class status and encourage pride it in. There is no shame in doing what you have to do to survive. It’s difficult to organize a labor movement when millions of people who are in denial about their class status, and how to improve their standard of living.

    Yes, education can’t solve a political problem. And that political problem is the decline of unions and the lack of a real Labor Party.

    Higher education is big business for the colleges and the bankers who help loan up students before they graduate.

    I also think employers like the higher education racket because it is a form of obedience training. Obedience is reinforced further by the increasingly pauper status of graduates, as they must take on more and more debt just to get that piece of paper they think is a ticket to a higher standard of living. It can also help cut pay even more. If the majority of the population all went to college to qualify for the minority of jobs that require a degree, then obviously it could only help to cut pay in the degree requiring professions even more.

    I think the best example of education not solving a political problem is the dreadfully low pay of beginning commercial airline pilots. Many of them qualify for food stamps and have to moonlight at other jobs just get by. Nobody can tell people with a job that requires such a high level of skill to “get a better education”. Their low Wal-Mart-like pay is the direct consequence of concessionary unionism, not their level of education.

    • I don’t believe many working class people are ashamed of being working class. They don’t need to “come out,” so to speak. Quite the contrary, the problem comes in when sociologists and other academics create sets of categories for what classifies someone as being working-class or middle class.
      I cannot quote the study, but I remember reading in undergrad school about stereos, for instance. The lower classes were purported to have been impressed to show off how their stereos “looked,” whereas the middle classes would be more inclined to be impressed by how a stereo “sounded.” Certainly dated and irrelevant today. Was it Levine’s Highbrow Lowbrow who, in the preface, put his nose in the air because the “lowbrow” family he interviewed only had 1 lamp in their living room, so obviously they must be low class as they didn’t have enough light to actually read a book. Gag and shame on these “academics.”
      The point is that academics create arbitrary categories in order to manipulate the concepts. We need to stop this and actually understand how people perceive themselves.The fact is, that many working class people consider themselves as middle class, and middle class people consider themselves the working class as they work very hard. Is it denial per se the state they are in? I know several college professors who qualify for welfare benefits. Where do they fit? Where do they place themselves? Academic categories are irrelevant to the lower and perhaps middle classes. Why should it matter to them? Perhaps if we shrugged out of the pigeonholes and see our commonalities, we would then, and only then, be able to comprehend a possible solidarity.

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  13. Yes, exactly. Thank you for writing.

  14. “Organized Collective Action,” as of last week, is now a felony: http://www.wsws.org/articles/2012/mar2012/prot-m03.shtml . Georgia will most likely pass a bill to criminalize union picketing.: http://www.aflcio.org/Blog/Political-Action-Legislation/Proposed-Georgia-Law-Makes-Picketing-Illegal-Sit-Downs-a-Felony . With the passage of the NDAA New Year’s Eve, we no longer have these “rights.” I do believe the media spotlight on contraception has been the smoke and mirrors for Congress to effective take away our right to assemble and protest. We will have to find another way “to reverse the…conditions people are facing now…” because protest will only label us terrorists and grant us indefinite detention and life-long torture in foreign countries. We need to keep up with the information that is hitting us faster than we can blink for any of it to be effective.

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