Young People, Education and Turbo-Charged Capitalism

Many of the legions who will be working, living, raising families and leading businesses, communities and national governments in the 21st Century are busily preparing themselves for victory in the contest of turbo-charged capitalism. A greater proportion of high school students are working harder and longer hours to get into America’selite universities, which are becoming increasingly selective because they have a larger and larger pool of highly qualified students to choose from for admissions to their programs. The Washington Post recently reported that for students determined to get into the nation’smost prestigious universities, the high school years always have been a time of angst. But now these teenagers are feeling a new level of pressure, because the competition for admission keeps getting stronger. This year, many top universities, including Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, Brown and the University of Pennsylvania, received the highest number of applications and handed out the lowest percentage of acceptances in their histories. (Eric L. Wee, The Washington Post (5/7/96) p. 1)

American students are witness to the intense economic competition of the 1990’s that is making it increasingly difficult to find a job that will be a life-long career. The goal of many college students is to make themselves employable, and flexible enough to continually learn new skills in order to maintain one’semployability. At Harvard, a growing number of students are finding smaller companies more attractive because the lure of entrepreneurship and because they are no longer guaranteed – or necessarily want – a lifetime job at many larger corporations, said Bill Wright-Swadel, director of career services for the arts and sciences college. (Cliff Edwards, The Washington Post (5/12/96) p. H4). A UCLA economic historian, Clifford Jacoby, recently remarked that “more and more young people and their parents are adjusting to what they see as the new dog-eat-dog economy themselves…they have lost their faith in all the traditional institutions, and are just trying to make themselves employable.” (The Washington Post (5/12/96) p. H5) An accomplished Geologist at the US Geological Survey who recently faced being downsized commented afterwards about the experience that his son realized he will have to be ready to reinvent himself every few years. (Walt Harrington, The Washington Post Magazine (5/19/96) p. 32).

More students are applying to elite institutions largely because of recent turbulence in the job market, college admissions officers say. Many parents and students believe that a name-brand college diploma is more important than ever to provide some economic security… The recession of the early 1990’swas a white-collar recession. What you’re seeing is fear in that population. They’re saying, “if you want to be really successful, you’d better go to a well-known school,” said Charles Deacon, dean of admissions at Georgetown University. (Eric L. Wee, The Washington Post (5/7/96) p. 1) Unfortunately, the costs associated with attending a well-known school are high, and are increasing yearly. Four years of tuition at an Ivy League school today costs about $120,000, and around $50,000 for top public ones. This makes it increasingly difficult for many families to pay for their children’s college tuition. Dan Black, professor of economics at the University of Kentucky and co-author of a recent report on college values, suggests that in choosing a university families should look at choice as an investment, and think about how much more money, if any, the student might expect to earn as a graduate of one school than of another. Then figure out how many years it will take to earn back the difference. (Albert B. Crenshaw, The Washington Post (4/28/96) p. H1)

At the other extreme, what is the future for the millions of young people who are either incapable or don’t want to compete with the winners of turbo-charged capitalism?

It is important to reflect on the fact that according to the 1993 US Census Bureau numbers 19.7 percent of Americans did not have even a high school diploma, and an additional 52 percent held only a high school diploma. Only about 20 percent of American’s have a Bachelors Degree or more of education. This reality is also present in the United Kingdom. The Centre for Economic Policy Research recently asked in their book, Acquiring Skills: Market Failures, Their Symptoms and Policy Responses, why the UK Government continues to pay tuition and provides partial maintenance grants for most British students receiving academic education while little support is given to non-degree-level vocational education and training. The Centre reasoned that perhaps the priorities need to be reversed. (Robert Taylor, The Financial Times (5/31/96) p. I)

Martin Wolf urges policymakers in the United Kingdom, but this is a warning to all economically advanced nations, that some way must be found to help young men of limited talent and disadvantaged backgrounds find worthwhile jobs. This is among the most important social challenges facing the UK…For all those who want to live in a tolerably safe society, it is common sense. (Martin Wolf, The Financial Times (4/20/96) Robert Reich warns that “if a significant portion of the workforce lacks the skills to succeed in the new economy, everyone’s standard of living is imperiled. Widening inequalities and insecurities also contribute to crime, delinquency and threats to public health.” (Robert Reich, The Financial Times (3/6/96) p. 11) Reich and others are calling for better job training programs financed by both the government and private industry to help improve the skills of young people who don’t attend university.

The problem is that job training programs cost money, and governments have less and less of it available. Since 1992, funds for labor market training and other active measures have fallen in such countries as Canada, Germany, Sweden and the United States…Incredibly, public spending for higher education has also fallen. In the United States, such expenditures were cut 10 percent in the early 1990’s, and in Britain only marginally less. (Ethan Kapstein, Foreign Affairs (May/June 1996) p. 27) Governments find themselves boxed in because they are presented with problems that under current political and fiscal conditions they can’t afford. Martin Wolf has observed that the ultimate consequence of the present unprecedented levels of peacetime public spending and deficits is likely to be another round of inflation in the 21st century. Among the most effective weapons of democratic politicians is to promise more to today’s voters than is imposed in taxation upon them, with the consequent fiscal deficits financed by willing, albeit foolish lenders. The latter turn politics into a positive-sum game for today’spoliticians and voters, the principle victims being future generations. (Martin Wolf, The Financial Times (4/23/96)

There seems to be little political will and even less money available for the training of unskilled and semi-skilled workers who are unemployed or working in jobs that provide meager wages, and even if there was more money available many people question how effective such training programs would be anyway. The benefits of training for dislocated workers are uncertain, and the costs of universal training would be prohibitive. Clearly, the expansion of educational opportunities should play a central role in any democratic society and should be financed – it makes for good politics and good economics. It cannot, however, provide anything resembling a near-term solution to the structural problems of unemployment and inequality. (Ethan Kapstein, Foreign Affairs (May/June 1996) p. 27) Jeremy Rifkin points out that many of the new high-paying jobs are in the computer sciences, medical fields, accounting and the like, and it would be extremely difficult to train or retrain unskilled or semi-skilled workers for such jobs, even if the money existed for such training.