by Eric Kaufmann
Thursday, 14
January 2021

No, elite overproduction does not cause social unrest

Jobless graduates are a human tragedy, not a recipe for political strife
by Eric Kaufmann
How many potential revolutionaries are lurking in this crowd? Credit: Getty

The commentator Noah Smith nicely shows how the supply of PhD graduates in America has continued to rise even as academic recruitment is stagnant. With the young student demographic levelling off and universities shifting toward using casualised untenured lecturers, the dream of a permanent professorship is more elusive than ever. An ever greater number of disappointed PhDs are being discharged onto the labour market.

While those in STEM are likely to realise a return on their educational investment, social science and humanities doctorates, notes Smith, earn little more than those with Bachelors degrees. He goes on to cite the work of Peter Turchin, who prophesied that western societies would enter a period of fractiousness in the 2020s due to long-term cyclical forces. Elite overproduction is a core aspect of his theory. Accordingly, Smith contends that too many PhDs fuels social strife.

Turchin is a fascinating scholar who believes that history can be quantified and modelled to render macro-level predictions. Empires expand and contract, societies fragment and coalesce, in rhythms that resemble those of the physical and natural worlds.

Turchin and I share a common interest in demography, the most predictive of the social sciences, and in political demography, its application to politics. If you know the share of Muslims in the under-five population today, you can predict how Muslim the 40-something median voters will be in the 2060s to a high degree of accuracy. When I gave a talk at a small seminar at the University of Connecticut in 2008 on my theory that demographic forces would make the world increasingly religious in the future, I recall Turchin asking excellent questions as well as being an extremely nice man.

I applaud Turchin’s attempt to inject science into history. Even so, most other social sciences are nowhere near as predictive as demography. Economic, much less social, forecasting, is highly error-prone. While there is merit in macro-patterns, a retrospective ‘just so’ reading of history is simply too tempting when tracing these trends. Elite overproduction has a long and venerable history as a theory. In today’s West, however, it is hard to link the highly educated to the revolts roiling western societies. For instance, populist Right voters are invariably less, not more, educated than average.

The populist Left contains many highly-educated as well as low income voters, but when I crunched some data from the British Election Study, the results did not support the idea that poorer highly-educated voters were more Left-wing or backed Corbyn at significantly higher rates.

Could Left-modernism (‘wokeness’) be the revenge of the dispossessed? Aside from the fact that woke is the establishment creed of corporate America, data I have analysed from YouGov and Prolific surveys suggests the facts don’t fit. That is, PhD students are the most woke segment of American and British society, but as soon as they step off campus into the work world, they seem to become more moderate and less enamoured of political correctness. As is often the case, apparent macro correlations and theories fail to stand up to detailed individual-level scrutiny.

Universities are incentivised by research assessment exercises, funding bodies and prestige rankings to produce as many PhDs as possible. This may be a human tragedy but it is not a recipe for social strife.

Join the discussion

  • We just had a quasi-debate over how to characterize Jill Biden over her EdD and whether that merits to “doctor” honorific. A few lawyers noted that the back end of JD is also doctor, but no one ever calls an attorney by that title. I’m not sure if it’s a question of any ‘elites’ but or one of too many credentialed people who appeal to their own authority.

    I grew up in academia; my dad was a PhD, an entomology professor so it every other person we knew was Dr Someone. There wasn’t the craziness of today’s campus, and maybe that’s because the list of degree programs had not yet expanded to include the ones with almost no application to the real world.

  • I started university in 1969 and I was only able to go because of the ‘new’ grants which were available. I found that there were two types of student: those like me from working class backgrounds who studied Engineering so that we could pay something back to our society and those from middle class backgrounds who went to study Politics and other arts courses. They made fun of us – the donkeys – while they lived on mummy and daddy’s money. They hung around all day while we had about 30 hours per week of tuition. They had cars and we didn’t.
    In those days everybody got a job but today the arts students can only go into politics or teaching. My two nephews have degrees in Fine Arts and Computer Animation and both work full time in Morrisons. However, there is still a need for GOOD Engineering students.
    A few years ago I helped (I wrote the job descriptions and sat in on the interviews) to recruit for a very large northern company. This company had factories all over the world and had planned a 3-month tour of these companies for the lucky student starting on 1st October – this was arranged in advance and all interviewees were informed of the plans. The students were much better in interview that we were with much more confidence and nous.
    We shortlisted three students and asked them to prepare a 5-minute presentation on one of the company’s products – for this they had to do a little research the company history on the internet. One student came back the next day and said that he found the topic a bit boring and could he choose another topic? We said ‘No’ and he was eliminated. A second student gave a fantastic presentation and we thought she was the one for us. But the next day, after we tentatively offered her the job she came back and said that her boyfriend wanted to celebrate by going on holiday for a fortnight so she couldn’t start until the 15th October.
    The third student had the job.

  • Leftists skew young, having been the product of over a dozen years of leftists indoctrination in our education system. This is not a new phenomenon – as Clemenceau observed: “Not to be a socialist at 20 shows you have no heart; to remain one after 30 shows you have no brain.”

    Younger people have higher qualifications because of the drive to get more and more people into higher education (thanks Tony), so a typical 60-year-old is far less likely to have a degree than a 30-year-old – this doesn’t mean they are more stupid or less ‘educated’.

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