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.
Chicago Working-Class Studies