Higher Education and Careers: Schumpeter’s Creative Construction

One of the virtues of writing a book is that an endnote in somebody else’s book leads you to track down a third book you should have read a long time ago.  Yes, I know I need to get out more often.

The book I’m currently working on grew out of American experiment’s new, multi-year project, “Great Jobs Without a Four-Year Degree: Good news for Students, Parents, and Employers.”  The second book in the sequence above is “From Shop Class to Soulcraft” by Matthew Crawford.  With the third book a classic written by economist Joseph Schumpeter in 1942, “Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy.”

In quoting Schumpeter below, please keep in mind that my colleagues and I will never try to dissuade any young person from seeking a four-year degree if that is his or her dream.  But it’s essential to acknowledge that many people who do earn baccalaureates wind up in jobs that don’t work well for them, never mind exciting them.  And that it such instances, many people would be happier in jobs that don’t require a B.A. or B.S.  I’m thinking of the trades, but not just them.  Think also of good-paying jobs in health care, I.T. and more.

With that as prologue, here is Schumpeter – the “creative destruction” guy – on what he saw as key aspects of capitalism.

“One of the most important features of the later stages of capitalist civilization is the vigorous expansion of the education apparatus and particularly the facilities for high education.  This development was and is no less inevitable than the development of the largest-scale industrial unit, but unlike the latter, it has been and is being fostered by public opinion and public authority so as to go much further than it would have done under its own steam.  Whatever we may think of this from other standpoints and whatever the precise causation, there are several consequences that bear upon the size and attitude of the intellectual group.

“First, inasmuch as higher education thus increases the supply of services in professional, quasi-professional and in the end all ‘white collar’ lines beyond the point determined by cost-return considerations, it may create a particularly important case of sectional unemployment.

“Second, along with or in place of such unemployment, it creates unsatisfactory conditions of employment – employment in substandard work or at wages below those of the better-paid manual workers.

“Third, it may create unemployability of a particularly disconcerting type.  The man who has gone through a college or university easily becomes psychically unemployable in manual occupations without necessarily acquiring employability in, say, professional work.”

It’s hard to overstate how prescient Schumpeter was 75 years ago.

Have huge higher education enrollments contributed to the unemployment of college graduates, at least at various times in their lives, especially early on?  Without question.

Has the explosive expansion of American higher education since World War II, when Schumpeter wrote, contributed to the underemployment of many graduates, often resulting in their making less money than plumbers and carpenters?  Without question.

And do some people who earn four-year degrees find the thought of blue collar work not just unappealing but insulting, too?  Without question, again.

In writing along lines like these, I’m alert to how I’m never more than a few inches away from insulting someone for some reason.  And I fully acknowledge that if anyone suggested to me when I was graduating high school that I’d be wise to consider something other than a liberal arts degree, I would not have been pleased.  So, I repeat: I have no intention of stomping on any dreams.  But, fact is, a four-year degree is simply not a guarantee of job satisfaction, either now or when Schumpeter wrote.  And young people and their parents, in making decisions with lifelong implications, would be well-served if they were familiar with more than a lone educational route to career success.