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.