How we ruined the Occupy generation

Oldsters “ruined” the Occupy Wall Street Generation with very bad advice, writes John Cheese on It starts by telling everyone to go to college to get a good job, implying that the good job is guaranteed so there’s no need to worry about about paying off student loans.
“A master’s in psychology? Pretty impressive. How would you say that qualifies you to answer the phone?”

In 1950, less than 10 percent of adults had bachelor’s degrees and only half had completed high school, he writes. “College was something that smart kids and people with money did.”  (When I was graduated from high school in 1970, it was above-average students and people with some money.) Now a bachelor’s is seen as the bare minimum. College graduates do much better in the workforce than people with only a high school diploma, but there’s no guarantee.

So when you finally take those first steps out of university life and enter the work field, it’s an absolute system shock to find out your $30,000 to $100,000+ bachelor’s degree doesn’t guarantee you a position in your field of study … possibly ever. At least 40 percent of you who get degrees will wind up in jobs that don’t require a degree at all. And the rest will wind up in jobs outside the field they studied.

Cheese adds other steps on the road to ruin, such as: Telling young people they’re too good for manual labor and adding another seven years to adolescence by telling young men it’s OK to live with your parents into your mid-20s.

A UCLA graduate in her mid-20s, working at an entry-level marketing job, told me she’s the envy of her former classmates.  One is teaching English overseas; others are working at Starbucks or still seeking that poorly paid dead-end job. UCLA grads with three years at Starbucks believe they’re seen as losers when they apply for entry-level career jobs, she said. Employers prefer shiny new grads. And not working makes you an even bigger loser. These are not slackers with “me studies” degrees from Mediocre College. They are top students whose parents don’t have connections to get them started.

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  1. The college-for-all push came partly from a lack of understanding between correlation and causation; the lifetime wage gap between college grads and others is correlation, not necessarily causation. Those qualities (some combination of ability, preparation, motivation and SES) that enabled kids to get a college degree (at a time when most did not) were likely to mean that those kids were fundamentally different from those kids not graduating from college. Another reason for the push is the racial/ethnic gap. However, I think that data moving outward will show (may already show) that admitting unprepared and marginal students who then gravitate to majors that don’t increase their knowledge/skills or chances of good college-grad jobs is a bad choice. It is an especially bad choice to give them taxpayer-funded loans they are unlikely to be able to repay. Both college admission and loans should be tied to SAT/ACT scores that indicate ability/preparation to do real college-level work.

    • Unfortunately change will never happen because once loans and admission are tied to actual standardized test scores, the racial and economic gaps would be too great… and no politician or school would be willing to take on the resulting protests and public outcry. The horse has left the barn already…. the only way to get it back would be to burn the barn down and rebuild.

  2. Bill Leonard says:

    Seems to me the question as to why some succeed and others struggle after college misses two key points: parental input, if any, and the natural insight and hustle of the individual student.

    Prospects were not a lot rosier when both our sons graduated from college a few years back.

    Our older son majored in poli-sci, lived for politics, volunteered in various local campaigns, made excellent contacts, and all the rest. All of this netted him several prestigius internships (never paid, of course), but few job offers (he yearned to be a lobbyist, in spite of the advice of his parents.) He ultimately took a sales job (one of those presumably “dead-end” jobs, but found he had a knack for sales. He has worked for about 15 years now in the pharmaceuticals industry, picked up an MBA along the way, and is now a member of a mergers/acquisitions team at a medium-sized pharmaceuticals company.

    Our younger son was casting about to find himself, and generated a part-time job in a bank about the same time he took an econ course and discovered his academic and practical loves: economics and banking. These days he’s a commercial and residential loan officer in a conservatively run and quite successful, within its nich, bank in San Francisco.

    The point is, both these men, with advice and a lot of personal insight and hustle, turned out just fine.

    But a few years back, as now, there was no one waiting to hire anyone just because that person had a brand-new degree and a temperature somewhere near 98.6f. Those new grads who get real jobs and build real careers work at it.


    • Those new grads who get real jobs and build real careers work at it.

      Exactly right, and the eras when that hasn’t been true have been anomalies.

  3. superdestroyer says:

    It would help if more high school students and high school counselors understood statistics. Students should only borrow money for normally distributed career fields that require credentials such as nursing, pharmacy, accounting, engineering. Students should not borrow money to major in log-normally distributed career fields with few credentials such as acting, journalism, publishing. If your family cannot pay for your college and help you get a job in politics, those types of career fields must be avoided.

  4. Richard Aubrey says:

    I think he was on the money when he spoke of devaluing blue-collar, dirty-hands jobs. To a point.
    The various contractors I know, some of whom have done work for us, have been reasonably prosperous. They have skills that astound me, knowledge bases from the first page to the last page of the dictionary. I’ve done some of that kind of work. I worked as a glazier when I was in college. But what they can do is far beyond simply getting good through repetition as I did.
    Which brings us to the old point. Some people simply are better than others at whatever.
    In addition, there are, broadly speaking, two kinds of blue-collar jobs. One is factory, assembly line work. Speaking broadly. The other is skilled trades or craftsmen. For a craftsman to be succesful as his own business, he has to be a people person, an organizer, a hustler. No matter how good he is, he needs to sell, every day. Some, like the contractor who’s helped us remodel, sell by reputation. Some have to get there first. People who do residential work need to to know at least some interior decoration so as to connect with the customer.
    In other words, some people are going to do well and some not, regardless of their field.
    Simply saying voc ed is good isn’t going to make a slacker, or somebody with a mild case of dyslexia, or mathophobia, into a successful craftsman. No matter how well he can install PVC.

  5. I’ve told my eleven year old son that he should get a degree, but that he should also learn a trade like building or plumbing or some such. If his professional aspirations work out that’s great, but if not he can then still have a skill that pays a decent wage. It helps that we know quite a few contractors who have degrees so the advice has context for him.

    Unless he can get a good college financial aid offer he is planning on doing the community college/transfer to a four year college route. I know the higher education bubble is bursting, but I’m not sure where in the cycle that will be when my son is ready for college.

  6. My wife and I (master’s and PhD, respectively), are planning on getting our two children enthused about cars and tools, hoping they’ll go into skilled blue collar labor.

  7. “Everybody should go to college” is an attempt to spackle over the loss of middle class, blue collar jobs and the fact that, if you view the shrinking middle class as a problem, nobody has a meaningful solution to that problem.

    The difficulty of college graduates have finding jobs is obviously more significant than in the 60’s or 70’s, when college graduates were far fewer in number, but doesn’t to me seem much different than in the mid-80’s through the present. We’re presently in a prolonged recession, and new graduates without job experience are going to have more difficulty finding a job in a recession.

    This is not new: If you get a college degree that does not qualify you for a job, you are going to be at a disadvantage when others who are applying for the job have degrees, certifications and even (gasp) experience relevant to the job. If you pursue a degree that is designed to qualify you for graduate school, you shouldn’t be surprised when employers aren’t lining up to hire you based upon your bachelor’s degree.

    If you’re entering an emerging field where job openings exceed the number of qualified applicants, you’re more apt to find employment without “the right degree”, but such windows usually close pretty quickly, sometimes with a surfeit of people with “the right degree” graduating from college a few years later when the demand is no longer as urgent.

  8. Michael E. Lopez says:

    I think Aaron is on to something here.

    I read somewhere — it might have been on this site — that the “middle class” of the 50’s and 60’s was a historical aberration made possible only by the fact that every other industrialized country in the world had the crap bombed and blasted out of it in WW2, leaving the United States in a unique and temporary position to enjoy an unparalleled degree of economic prosperity.

  9. Richard Aubrey says:

    Michael Lopez.
    Historically, the lower class worked for the middle class which owned business, large or small and the upper class had so much money they didn’t have to work.
    After WW II, the lower class in terms of employment had so much money they could live somewhat like the middle class while doing lower class work.
    So, yeah. We had a monopoly on practically everything in the post war years and the unions had a monopoly on labor and the big firms could afford to pay them because…they had a monopoly.

  10. Walter E Wallis says:

    First, and most important, outlaw the collection of ANY data on race or religion or sex. Then set a line for everyone. Perhaps, then, we can eliminate all the crap and get back to running an education system. The biggest crippling of education [and lots of other stuff] is affirmative action, the single biggest mistake our nation made.