Too clever by half

The higher education contract no longer delivers what it promised. It must serve hearts and hands as well as the cognitive elite

David Goodhart

One simple idea has been central to education policy, social mobility policy and economic productivity policy in most rich countries for the past few decades. It is the idea that the class of the highly educated, the mass cognitive elite, will just continue growing, and that this extra supply of graduates will create a demand for more high productivity, high skill jobs, that will in turn produce richer societies.

This assumption seems to neatly combine economic efficiency and social justice and, for that reason, it has been one of the few remaining areas of consensus between left and right. Indeed, it is Labour in the UK and Democrats like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren who demand “college for all”.

Yet the idea was unravelling before our eyes, even before the pandemic, because it turns out that the knowledge economy does not need as many knowledge workers as once expected. The era of the steady expansion of the class of cognitive professionals is now coming to an end, yet no one in last year’s UK election nor this year’s US election is talking about it.

Membership of the top two social classes, the higher and lower ends of the professional and managerial class, has grown rapidly to more than one third of the adult population in recent decades in most rich countries as economies demanded more highly educated workers and higher education, following the US lead in the 1950s and 1960s, expanded in response. That growth has now slowed dramatically—in the UK the proportion of adults in those two classes has increased from 35 per cent to just 37 per cent in the past 20 years.

One reason for this is widely discussed: AI is now starting to do to professional jobs what automation did to manual ones. AI is coming for the middling and lower end cognitive jobs in law, accountancy, public administration, medicine and so on.

Moreover, we have already been witnessing a decline in the pay and status of the average graduate job thanks to the inevitable diminishing returns when the proportion of school leavers going on to university rises from around a quarter to closer to a half in many rich countries. The average graduate income premium for men has fallen in the UK and the US to around 10 per cent (20 years ago the premium was more like 40 per cent), though it is still higher for graduates of elite institutions.

Many of the jobs now tagged as professional and performed by graduates are often more or less the same jobs done by their non-graduate parents. The academics Phil Brown and Hugh Lauder talk about “digital Taylorism”: the routinisation of cognitive work that once demanded thought and judgement. Moreover around 30 per cent of graduates are not even in graduate employment 10 years after graduating.

Yet the notion that a good degree and a decent professional job is the route to life-long security is still alive and well in the minds of many, perhaps a majority, of parents in rich countries. And institutional inertia means that in many rich countries the numbers going to university continues to rise. But the higher education contract is no longer delivering what it once promised and is contributing to a misalignment of skills and expectations.

This is now becoming economically and politically dysfunctional. The work of the economist Robert Gordon stresses that unprecedented investment in research universities has coincided with declining productivity in most western countries. Some economists even argue that the decline may in fact be partly caused by the growth of the graduate bureaucracy. Meanwhile we have a crisis of recruitment in many corners of the public care economy and in middle-skill technical jobs and skilled trades.

Politically the expansion of the mass graduate elite, without the corresponding high status jobs that its members had been led to believe was their birthright, is creating a crisis of expectations that has probably contributed to radical outbursts such as the Bernie Sanders movement in the US or Jeremy Corbyn in the UK. Maybe even the Black Lives Matter movement is partly motivated by the disappointed expectations of young black graduates.

Rich societies have a short-term problem of expectation management but longer term the only answer is to steer people away from the idea that membership of the cognitive meritocracy is the only worthwhile goal. We have shrunk the idea of a successful life to a degree from a good university and a well-paid professional job and, as Daniel Bell noted almost 50 years ago in his book The Coming of Post-Industrial Society, we have created just one big ladder up the modern higher education system, into that zone of safety and success. Until recently there were more little ladders, with promotion from below in many organisations still possible, and a wider notion of a good life.

Meanwhile, the idea of meritocracy has taken an intellectual battering in recent months with influential books from Daniel Markovits and Michael Sandel. Both of them stress the impossibility of a fair meritocracy in any free society that allows families to pass on advantage but both also stress the inherent undesirability of turning society into a competition which the most able win and many of the rest feel like failures. We still need selection by merit into relevant jobs but that does not require a meritocratic society that disproportionately values the clever.

My own new book—Head, Hand, Heart: The Struggle for Dignity and Status in the 21st Century—echoes some of these ideas but places more stress on the imbalance that modern societies have created between the cluster of aptitudes associated with those three parts of the human anatomy. To put it bluntly, modern societies have made one kind of human aptitude, cognitive ability, too much the gold standard of human esteem and the shaping of society too much in the interests of smart people has helped to create the political alienation that led to Brexit in the UK and the election of the maverick Donald Trump in the US.

Of course, high intelligence properly applied is as socially useful today as ever and someone who designs a building or invents a new drug is creating more value than someone who cleans an office or delivers parcels and should be rewarded accordingly. But is a junior account manager at a PR firm really more valuable than a bus driver? Many people in the middle and lower ranks of the graduate class are no more able than their non-graduate peers but they enjoy the reflected glory of their educational and occupational proximity to the creative intelligences who are the real value creators.

The allocation of reward and status has got out of kilter and too few people have been attracted into the Hand and Heart jobs that are essential for the running of a good society in care homes or in vital maintenance functions. But if western countries can do something as improbable as partially close their economies and collectively underwrite the incomes of millions, public policy can surely help to nudge status and reward a bit more evenly across the different aptitudes.

And there are several trends, some of them reinforced by the pandemic, which will, in any case, demand some movement in this direction. There is the fact, already mentioned, that the knowledge economy needs fewer knowledge worker foot-
soldiers than was once assumed. Yet demand for basic, but as we discovered in the pandemic also “key”, jobs in retail, transport, refuse collection and so on, is not about to decline and those jobs have to be sufficiently paid and respected for people with choices to want to do them.

This applies even more so to Heart jobs in the public care economy in hospitals and care homes that have been at the centre of the pandemic. This sector has suffered acute recruitment problems in recent years which will only get worse as societies age, unless the jobs can be made more attractive, perhaps especially to men who tend to be reluctant to move into female-dominated work.

Education, especially in the US and UK, has become almost entirely academic-focused in recent times with wood and metal-working classes disappearing from the curriculum and the overwhelming focus on getting students into good universities. Yet with cognitive jobs in decline and the number of international students likely to fall, higher education will shrink. It was always a bad idea to focus so much higher education on 18-19 year olds, many of whom are not mature enough to benefit from it, and as the US and UK governments try to make up for the loss of technical and craft skills we are likely to see more shorter-term and vocational forms of post-school education as lifelong learning/re-learning becomes more of a reality.

The cultural domination of cognitive/Head aptitudes is, especially in the Anglo-Saxon world, associated with the prioritising of mobility and openness partly because so many of the best-educated attend residential universities and are mobile from a young age—they have had to “leave to achieve”. Surely one consequence of the pandemic will be somewhat less mobile societies and less bustling metropolitan centres sucking less of the talent and dynamism out of the provinces.

The post-Brexit UK will only thrive if it remains a centre of education, research and innovation. It must therefore cherish its research universities while at the same time reinventing vocational and technical education—a difficult balancing act. But there will be fewer jobs manipulating information in the future and more jobs in care and technical functions which require less of an academic training and more emotional and practical intelligence. There is more than one scale of human worth. 

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