The Myth of the 'Knowledge Economy'
Rick Santorum briefly struck out at ingrained snobbery about going to college: "President Obama once said he wants everybody in America to go to college. What a snob." Amid howls from Republican governors, this was a piece of derision it didn't take him long to retract. Actually, it turns out only about 30 per cent of Americans over the age of 25 have bachelor's degrees. Jack Metzgar, emeritus professor of humanities at Roosevelt University in Chicago, had a very useful piece in Working Class Perspectives, the blog of the Center for Working Class Studies Site, with this and other useful facts and reflections.
The US government's Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that in 2010 only 20 per cent of jobs required a bachelor’s degree, whereas 26 per cent of jobs did not even require a high school diploma, and another 43 per cent required only a high school diploma or equivalent.
Please note that the latter 69 per cent were therefore free of the one debt in America that’s even more certain than taxes -- a students loan. At least, if you're provably broke the IRS will countenance an "offer in compromise." In fact they recently made the process slightly easier. No such luck with student loans. The banks are in your pocket till the last dime of loan plus interest has been extorted.
Now for the next dose of cold water. The BLS reckons that by 2020 the overwhelming majority of jobs will still require only a high school diploma or less and that 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 per cent paying a median of about $20,000 a year (in 2010 dollars
As Metzgar correctly remarks, "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.’” In other words millions of Americans are over-educated, servicing endless debt to the banks and boosting the bottom lines of Red Bull and the breweries.
The snobbery, as Metzgar points out, stems from the fact that America's endless, mostly arid debates about education are conducted by the roughly one third who are college-educated and have okay jobs and a decent income.
The "knowledge economy" in the U.S., now needs more than 6 million people with master's or doctoral degrees now, with another 1.3 million needed by 2020. But this will still be less than 5 per cent 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).
As Metzgar writes, "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." Here's his kicker: 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. . .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 future."
So what is the best anti-poverty program? Higher wages for the jobs that are out there, currently yielding impossibly low annual incomes. The current American minimum wage ranges between $7.25 and $8.67 per hour. From time to time senior executives of Wal-Mart call for a rise in the minimum wage since, in the words of one former CEO, Lee Scott, "our customers simply don't have the money to buy basic necessities between pay checks." The minimum wage in Ontario, Canada, is currently well over $10 per hour, while in France it now stands at nearly $13. Australia recently raised its minimum wage to over $16 per hour, and nonetheless has an unemployment rate of just 5 percent.
Any Republican candidate seriously pledging to raise the minimum wage to $12 would gallop into the White House, unless -- a solid chance -- he wasn’t shot dead by the Commentariat, or maybe by a Delta team acting on Obama's determination relayed to him by the bankers, that this constituted a terrorist assault on America. As Ron Unz, publisher of The American Conservative -- who favors a big hike in the minimum wage, recently wrote:
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