Why is a BA now a ticket for a job at a cafe?



Too many college kids live in mom's basement or work at Starbucks. Like most personal finance columnists, I get the letters: what should I do? How can I fix that? For many, the answer is a graduate program. But I also get the letters from graduate students. Some time ago, I found myself talking to a teacher whose school has a large number of impressive sound-based graduate programs originally designed to be added to a professional diploma. law, medicine or business administration. They are now attracting a number of students who are just graduating. He did not understand what the career path of these children was and he was not sure he knew it either.


"It looks good, so they can persuade their parents to pay for it," he said with a hint of guilt.

A new article by Paul Beaudry, David Green and Benjamin Sand states that these worried kids - and their worried parents - are not just imagining things. The phenomenon is too real. Skilled workers with higher degrees are increasingly finding themselves in lower-skilled jobs that do not necessarily require a degree - and in doing so they completely exclude unskilled workers from the labor force.

The graph above shows the average cognitive load of the work done by the students. As you can see, the period 1990-2000 peaked, while the computer revolution created new possibilities for "reflection work". Then he started to fall. A brief recovery around 2006 has been pretty much wrecked by the financial crisis. Meanwhile, their routine work has increased.

The authors think they have an explanation: during the big computer boom, the returns of cognitive skills increased. Since then, the process has reversed: the demand for cognitive tasks is declining. This may be due to the fact that the installation of robots consumes more resources than their maintenance, or perhaps it is simply that robots perform a growing number of cognitive tasks. But whatever the reason, we no longer want and no longer need so many skilled workers performing unusual tasks with a large analytical component. Workers who can not get these jobs take less skilled jobs. The least qualified workers give up their jobs altogether, many of them eventually becoming disabled.

This is, of course, highly speculative: it is a document. But that would be
explain a lot. Six months ago, a Newsweek article caused a sensation by saying that we risk overinvesting in the university. This argument had three main aspects: first, high college attendance is a reported activity rather than the acquisition of skills; second, more BA students are in jobs that do not need them; and thirdly, a significant number of children do not end up, emancipating themselves with a lot of debt and not having the ability to earn the corresponding money to pay for it.

My many critics have said that the salary advantage of a university graduate is higher than ever. This is consistent with what Beaudry and his associates say, however, that lower-skilled workers are moving away from higher-paying jobs as college graduates move down the skill ladder. For example, while university graduates find it difficult to find a university-type job, unskilled workers are worse off. This does not necessarily prove that the university degree pays the salary - it may be that people who are able to enter the university can get this barista job even if they do not leave it.

Of course, if Beaudry and others are right, this is extremely depressing news. This suggests that we are pushing more and more people into (increasingly expensive) college programs, even though the number of jobs in which they can use these skills has decreased. An increasing number of students could participate in a diploma-based arms race to gain access to routine service jobs. Or maybe the productivity of our country's waiting staff is increasing as more and more skilled workers move into these jobs.

Unfortunately, there is no obvious political answer to this. Government policy makes it easier to create more college-educated workers than to create jobs for them. It's not even clear what the personal response should be - except that if you're thinking of specializing in English, you might want to see if you can not get a job at Starbucks instead.

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