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July 08, 2008

« Humanities and Social Sciences Talk | Main | Celebrating Pittsburgh »

Clive Crook in the Financial Times:

A startling and profoundly important fact about the US economy has received surprisingly little attention. The educational quality of the country’s workers is starting to decline – not just relatively (because other countries are catching up and moving ahead) but also, for the first time, in absolute terms. Over the coming years, baby-boomers departing from the labour force will have better educational qualifications than the younger workers replacing them. If the ultimate source of an economy’s ability to grow and prosper is its human capital, the US is in trouble.

For decades the educational quality of the US labour force surged. In 1940, less than 5 per cent of the population aged 25-64 had at least a four-year college education. By 2000, the proportion had increased to nearly 30 per cent. Successive generations of workers improved on the educational attainments of their predecessors. Retiring workers were replaced by better-educated youngsters. This remorseless accumulation of human capital helped fuel the country’s postwar growth. According to at least one authoritative study, it was the principal driver.

This trend came to a halt with workers now aged 55-59. Younger cohorts are no better educated than these soon-to-retire boomers. Broadly speaking, educational quality has topped out – and on at least one measure, it is actually deteriorating. In 2006, Americans aged 55-59 collectively possessed more masters degrees, professional degrees and doctorates than Americans aged 30-34. This impending loss of educational capital is entirely outside the country’s experience.

The numbers come from a recent study by Jacob Funk Kirkegaard of the Peterson Institute for International Economics: The Accelerating Decline in America’s High-Skilled Workforce: Implications for Immigration Policy. As the title suggests, Mr Kirkegaard is chiefly concerned with the US visa system, which discriminates in a variety of ways against high-skilled immigrants. Easier entry of immigrants with scarce skills – for which high-tech employers such as Intel, Microsoft and others tirelessly plead – is the quickest and easiest fix and Mr Kirkegaard makes an unanswerable case for it. But the deeper problem, as he notes, lies with the education system. What is going on?

The US has always depended on "imported" talent at both the high and low end.  Superb universities, strong research institutions and vibrant high-tech industries primed the pump of this system.  But the problem runs far deeper through the education and development pipeline and as James Coleman and collaborators have pointed out right down to the early-childhood development system.  What's going on, indeed?


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the decline in the education in American, based on my current experience of being a full time worker while attending college is a lack of money for living expenses. The loan money is there but the state of california and the federal goverment have contraditory policies about eligibility in just about everything. According to the S.F. Chronicle most of the visa workers that the businesses want to bring into the county are persons who hold bachelors degrees, not MS,MBA,or PhD. What so special about a bachelors degree?


An interesting article, but with very poor numbers.

How many people are their between 55 and 59? And how many between 30 and 34? One of those groups has a lot more people, guess which one (hint: they get more AARP notices than the other).

So comparing absolute number of degreed people is a horrible measure in this situation, we have to comparte %'s.

Further, we'd want to compare the % of those 30-34 with degrees to when the 55-59'ers were the same age.

THEN, and only then, can we really determine where we are relative to various generations.

None of the above is to say things are fine and dandy, but let's at least use valid numbers.

Economics would dictate if we can't develop our own educated workforce we'd import the brains we need. However our immigration policy (increasingly set by those who aren't educated as well as their parents?) does not allow for this labor to enter the workforce as quickly as we need it.

John Thacker

What's so special about a bachelor's degree, nick? Well, people who hold master's, professional, and (especially) doctorates are generally able to enter this country fairly easily, especially in academia. OTOH, talented bachelor's degree holders are not, hence the big push for businesses wanting to hire more.

This, combined with other aspects of the the US economy, has generally meant that while excellent opportunities exist for bachelor's degree holders who are US citizens (software engineering and finance jobs do hire with them), there are a lot of people from poorer countries who can't get those jobs-- but who can get into academic or professional jobs by going to graduate or professional school. I have a lot of friends from college (met in undergrad or grad school) who went to graduate school solely because it was the only way to stay in this country. It's a positive feedback loop; the excess numbers of foreign students in graduate school who are not eligible for finance and other bachelor's degree holding jobs push down salaries for grad students compared to those other jobs, and make more US students take the consulting, finance, and software positions that don't require more schooling. (It is, in another sense, questionable whether or not those advanced degrees necessarily add value. I've known very good programmers who only had a bachelor's; they would be no more creative or intelligence or productive by having a further degree.)

It is strange that this is happening despite the returns to education increasing. Loan money and aid by itself doesn't seem to be the answer; universities seem to just raise their tuition to capture most aid increases.

Possibly another issue is assortative mating, and the segregation of many of the educated into "creative class" cities. Broadly speaking, a society where the advanced degree holders are randomly spread throughout will probably have more people get advanced degrees than if they all marry one another. Marriages with one advanced degree holder and one not are fairly likely to have children get advanced degrees, in my experience.

At least some of the historical rise in education was caused by the increase in women going to college; that's largely completed now. (Indeed, women make up a strong majority of those in university.)


The US has great universities full of highly qualified professors. And in-state tutition isn't that expensive, so a great many Americans can afford college.

The problem is before students get there. The US needs to find a way to offer decent primary and secondary education (ie for ages 5-18) to everyone.

If you look at the other G7 countries, and much of the top 25-50 countries economically in the world, you'll find good, free public education.

When I taught in the US (having been educated in Canada until I reached grad school) I was shocked at how poorly prepared university students were. Most would not have passed grade 9 or 10 in Canada and certainly could not have passed the English 12 exam, required to graduate in BC.

Students could barely write -- most had no concept of sentence structure (the idea that a verb is required was completely alien and they thought it unfair that their essays were marked down for not using verbs). And I only interacted with 3rd and 4th year students who presumably had taken some writing courses at the university level! These were otherwise bright individuals.

The students who had been through the public system generally operated at levels far below those who'd been to private school, but even many who had attended average private schools were not that well prepared to be in University. There were exceptions of course (certain smart people will always find a way to learn despite the system).

US students need a better foundation before reaching university.

Fixing the education system nationally would also make talented parents feel more mobile.

Whitney Gunderson

Another part of the problem is the increase of social inequality in America.... and the devaluation of the middle class. While folks in the middle class shouldn't be viewed as victims, they have sort of been taken for granted. The rich don't feel the squeeze, because they are getting richer, and the poor can't do anything about it, because their income is less valuable.... and they are caught in a downward spiral. You know, the Iraq War hasn't helped this any, but we all seem to be in denial over that. If I remember this right, the U.S. spends $340 million per day on the Iraq War. When something like this becomes the unspoken priority in a country, more so than education, is it really surprising that we have lost focus on something as seemingly unimportant and fluffy as human capital and sustainability in metropolitan areas? Only with all this in mind can we answer the question of "what's happening?" By the way, Wendy, this is a bigger issue than noticing when students don't use verbs in sentences. I hope you made an effort to teach your students better writing skills, instead of just reducing points. University professors with a fixation on trivia instead of an honest understanding of larger issues, and the inability of a surprising number of professors in today’s academia who lack the skill and motivation to stimulate genuine discussion on everyday topics due to rampant credentialing, is a serious education system deficiency.

Zoe B

It might be wise to compare the cost of tuition + room & board + interest on educational loans across age cohorts. Perhaps you could measure it as number of subsequent salary-years needed to pay the complete price. I have the impression that the total cost is substantially greater today than for the Baby Boomers. While a college degree does still confer a lifetime income benefit, the amount of that benefit might have decreased compared to that experienced by the Baby Boomers. It thus would be rational for a larger proportion of 'borderline' students to forego college.

Michael Wells

The number of boomers with advanced degrees, and for that matter BA's, was driven artificially high by the Vietnam War. The draft had a deferment for college students so many young men went to college, and stayed for higher degrees, who probably wouldn't have otherwise. I'd guess many young women also did it because the men were there. The women's movement was also opening opportunities in formerly closed fields.

With the end of the draft and the increasingly irrelevant teaching methods, not just in high schools but undergraduate college level, the percentages went down. Whether they're at a more "natural" level now is another discussion.


This issue will continue to be perplexing as Americans (as well as many others) are afflicted with educational romanticism. I didn't have access to the whole article but I don't see anybody mentioning the changing demographics as a result of "importing" a larger portion of the labor pool from Mexico and the very low education rates among both those directly imported and the four generations (see Telles & Ortiz) we've seen follow. It appears to me the question is now how to cope with having a large portion of the population who are simply never going to be knowledge workers (which the Japanese put more thought into without as much need) but in a country that could pass as transparently a foolish law as No Child Left Behind, that simply isn't going to happen.

Whitney Gunderson

The education rate of immigrants shouldn't keep other people in the United States from getting an education. I don't think it does. The article notes that companies like Intel and Microsoft beg for highly skilled immigrants to get free-passes to stay in the United States, but that falls of deaf ears.... Richard Florida addressed this in The Flight of the Creative Class. Public school districts, K-12, are obligated to educate children, regardless of immigration status. This doesn't make the financial headlines, but the children of illegal immigrants can go to public K-12 school in the United States and get straight A's. When they graduate high school, they are immediately subject to criminal charges and deportation. So, not only are we absent-mindingly importing illegal immigrants into this country to fill jobs that wouldn't be filled otherwise, we are criminalizing their kids who go to school upon high school graduation. There may be a problem with the educational system in this country, but when we criminalize the children of illegal immigrants at a young age, that points to a huge moral problem. Politicians like Republican Steve King of Iowa, one of the most notorious scum bags of our time, fan the flames on this. King states that immigrants flee their home country because they are rapists and murderers. And King gets elected in landslides.... so go figure.

hayden fisher

Ridiculous article. The young people in this country, particularly the generation behind me (a 36 year old Gen-Xer) is incredibly talented, driven, practical, industrious and highly educated. I'll quell my desire to write about recent personal experiences with boomers and say simply that many of them possess skill-sets that have long become obsolete. The world has changed so much since they earned their degrees that the degrees they earned provide no marginal benefit in today's economy whatsoever unless they've continued their learning-- and many of them haven't. Sorry boomers, we won't miss you in the office.

Whitney Gunderson

I don't get it Hayden. First you routed the 'burbs, and now the Baby Boomers. You have to be careful about how you perceive someone's age. Young or old, people don't like to be "aged" by other people. I, along with many others, think that's pretty much garbage. The article didn't say that the younger generation wasn't talented or motivated. It just said they were less educated and backed up that position with persuasive evidence and argument. You say the article is ridiculous, but back up your argument basically by saying you believe in age discrimination. So.... your position becomes really tough to tolerate.

Michael Wells

Actually one of the endearing things about Hayden is that his attitudes towards his parents' generation are the same as Jerry Rubin's and the "youth cult" of the late '60's were towards their parents, the WWII generation (don't trust anybody over 30).


Hayden is actually pretty old at 36. Not at all young anymore, sorry...Speaking of knowledge as obsolete reveals a viewpoint that values education only as a means of making money. Part of the problem with education is that love of knowledge for it's own sake drives someone to earn an advanced degree and continue learning, not a desire to earn more money, that attitude is often missing in younger generations. Too often primary, and secondary educators focus on making children "feel good about themselves", or "prepare for a career', not on providing a substantial educational foundation. ...Contrary to popular opinion, playing XBox games well, and having lots of features on your phone doesen't mean that you are well versed in technology, and are poised to become tomorrow's innovator.

hayden fisher

Wil, that could be true, but I would hazard a guess that emotional imbalance and lack of mental wellness have lost more jobs and cost more innovation than lack of formal education ever has. Knowledge generally has become less important because it is abundant everywhere. I read an interesting article this week positing that Google has made us stupid because we no longer need to learn and retain knowledge when it's at our fingertips. But, whatever, the commodity most valuable in today's world is not knowledge but the ability to think creatively and differently; to bring new things to life. So imagination is more important than wrote learning. To that end, some of the gaming probably does more to prepare one to succeed in the new world than memorizing multiplication tables and history lessons ever would. Especially when they're on the tips of iPhone fingers anyway.

Sorry for the continued bashing of the boomers, I have personal feelings and experiences, and an insatiable desire to be somewhat controversial, that seem to get in the way at times.

Whitney Gunderson

But the ability to think creatively and differently brings new knowledge. Adept gaming skills are akin to social skills.... they are important but can only take a person so far. Hayden and I have different taste in articles. I read the article on Google and lost focus after the first paragraph, not because I couldn't concentrate, but because I sensed in about 20 seconds that the author was blaming his inability to concentrate on technology. That's a cop out. There's a danger to blaming everything on "emotional imbalances" and a "lack of mental wellness," and it was written about in Culture of Narcissism by Christopher Lasch.


The insatiable desire to be controversial gives us a chance to brush up on our social skills.

Michael Wells

It's important to distinguish knowledge from memorized facts. Google takes care of data, but doesn't help us to understand or use it. Knowledge hasn't become less important, in fact more, but different kinds of knowledge are required. The ability to think creatively, and put the creations into use, depends on deep knowledge. It's well known in virtually every art form that the most creative people are solidly grounded in the basics. I would say the same is true in science and business. The knowledge that's required now is deeper than rote learning, and maybe harder to acquire.

There's a wonderful book by Mickey Hart, drummer for the Grateful Dead, called Drumming on the Edge of Magic. Its about how pursuing a passion in depth can open the world for you -- drumming took him into the basements of the Smithsonian, the computer labs of Stanford and around the world to many cultures.


I flashed through the same article on the ferry the other day, and came to the conclusion that the writer was creating an excuse for not being able to retain what he has learned. One thing that rote learning does is teach you how to remember facts. Without knowledge of facts, creativity becomes difficult. Having thorough knowledge of at least one subject is critical to opening the world of future learning and creativity ..Regarding "mental wellness" and "emotional imbalance", many extremely creative people fall into these categories. I came into contact with many brilliant people during my school years, and since then, that are nutcases by conventional standards. ...Limits to the next generation's creative thinking are caused by our education system, and our entertainment-based society. Childern in primary and secondary school, in good private schools, learn far less today than we learned back in the boomer years in filled to capacity public schools- very frustrating for parents. Much emphasis is put on interfacing with computers for information, not on remebering... We fight back by not having game boxes in our home, and putting time limits on our boys to keep them from being absorbed by the time-wasting, online game world.

Michael Wells

Wil raises some good questions about how you encourage creativity, which I believe requires unstructured time -- and for depth, quiet. The problem with television and online games isn't just their content, but that they provide or require a ready made structure. The TV programming or game format and rules are someone else's work and the viewer/player just reacts, doesn't have a blank slate to build on from their own imagination. They do encourage some skill-sets, but not the "inspiration and perspiration" Edison said defined genius.

I also think the modern plugged in all the time iPod, cell phone, text messaging, game box constant stimulation lifestyle deprives us of silence. I recently rented a car and couldn't find an obvious "off" button for the radio, the default was sound. When you go to a movie the time before the film, when you used to talk or just sit, is filled with blaring commercials. The wisdom of Zen, the Trappists, etc. is the use of silence and meditation to listen to our inner voices, and to the universe (God if you prefer).

hayden fisher

All good points, I didn't like the Google article either, I just found it interesting that someone would raise and debate the issue. Bottom line, knowledge is not nearly important as it once was. The second corollary, because knowledge is available to everyone nearly instantaneously, it can be combined, grouped, synthesized and something new from it created much more easily and widely than ever before. Non-professionals or persons outside classes of specialists have access to the same bodies of knowledge as the so-called field experts; and they can do things with it.

As for my earlier comments about mental wellness, my ADHD gets in my way sometimes even though I'm highly educated and a formal educator myself. The people who fail in my profession (law) do so much more because of an inability to cope with stress and other emotional issues than they do because of want of more education.

I recoup my sanity via working-out and running primarily; and attending performing arts events and concerts--seeing PEOPLE perform live. Creatives crave density to gain more of those experiences. I love Zen and mediation, very difficult to do in today's world, but very rewarding when one finds the time for it.

....anyway, off to the gym.... good discussion!!!!

Gary Dare

"This doesn't make the financial headlines, but the children of illegal immigrants can go to public K-12 school in the United States and get straight A's. When they graduate high school, they are immediately subject to criminal charges and deportation." (Whitney Gunderson) Yes, I have read the newspaper stories about valedictorians who happen to be illegal immigrants (brought in by their parents) and how only a handful of state colleges don't screen for status ... yet. Last year, in Portland, there was a drive documented in Willamette Week (the 'established' alternative weekly) to raise fellowship funds to Reed College for one such valedictorian.

Back in Chicago, there are stories of how illegal immigrant high school grads from the Polish and Irish communities (few illegal Irish actually remain in the US since most were here only for work before their boom) have returned to Europe and attend university within the EU, possibly separated from their families for a long time (e.g., what do you say to the US border guard at O'Hare if you're visiting Chicago for Christmas holidays?). You may run into someone at Cambridge or Tubingen speaking perfect English with a Chicago west side accent ...

Gary Dare

"According to the S.F. Chronicle most of the visa workers that the businesses want to bring into the county are persons who hold bachelors degrees, not MS,MBA,or PhD." (nick) Many of those folks are staff from Indian contractors who have not worked with their firm for a year to qualify for a corporate transfer (L) visa. And from India, qualifying is just the first hurdle despite that their tours are only for 1-3 years, non-immigration track.

Even with advanced degrees, many repats that I have met no longer feel it's worthwhile to spend 6-7 years in an entry level position after graduation for full, traditional (i.e., permanent) immigration to the US or Canada. In high technology, many positions don't even last longer than 2-3 years.

Gary Dare

P.S. on my reply to Whitney's comment: the children of illegal immigrants born in the US and many other countries are citizens, so they are not subject to arrest and deportation. Many nativists like the Minutemen are challenging the law as 'jus soli' (born on soil), to move the US towards (e.g.) Germany who practice 'jus sang' (birth by bloodline) resulting in generations of non-franchised residents, e.g., in the Turkish community. Germany has changed their laws so must Turkish-Germans born in Germany, under 40, are citizens but three generations that came previous are still in limbo.

As for the illegal immigrants raised in the US as Americans, who make it through a state college that doesn't screen for status, some are lucky to be able to return 'home' especially if that's the European Union, where you may run into a Chicago-raised, U of Illinois graduate Polish or Irish at the Citi offices in London. Fresh graduates would probably not fare as well trying for Canada and its points-based immigration system aimed at experience workers.

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