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The Great Decoupling: What 17 Million College Graduates Working Menial Jobs Tells Us about the True State of the American Economy

There is one number that is worse than the number of the currently unemployed or those underwater on their mortgages. It is the number of those who have college degrees and are, despite their credentials, working menial jobs – cleaning, cooking, and doing other labor. Richard Vedder at The Chronicle of Higher Education revealed last year the stunning statistics,

Over 317,000 waiters and waitresses have college degrees (over 8,000 of them have doctoral or professional degrees), along with over 80,000 bartenders, and over 18,000 parking lot attendants. All told, some 17 million Americans with college degrees are doing jobs that the BLS says require less than the skill levels associated with a bachelor’s degree.

This is even true at the doctoral and professional level – there are 5,057 janitors in the U.S. with Ph.D.s, other doctorates, or professional degrees.

Few have unpacked the implications of this catastrophic state of affairs, but the statistics point to one inescapable conclusion: not only is the American economy in worse shape than the unemployment numbers would lead anyone to believe, it was in quiet crisis long before the Great Recession began, and it will be in crisis long after the mainstream media celebrate economic recovery. The reason? Growing productivity. As the economy has been growing more productive, its labor requirements have been falling. Millions of college graduates are working menial jobs because the economy is unable to create enough jobs for them – a leaner, meaner economy needs fewer workers. The consequences of this will be more poverty for more Americans along with the evaporation of civil liberties while the top earners become richer than ever.

The American economy has been in crisis long before the Great Recession. In fact, it was the quiet crisis that caused the Great Recession: Americans were seeing their wages decline for years and were in no financial position to absorb the sudden economic shock that precipitated the Great Recession. As early as the 1990s, graduates of low-end colleges were heading into menial jobs. But then none of that mattered because those who graduated from low end colleges were, in a sense, throwaway people to the mainstream media – they did not make for good victims, people with whom the average reader could easily identify, and so their plight didn’t register.

It was only after the Great Recession, when those privileged youth of the upper classes experienced what their poorer, invisible peers had been living for years, that the questions of the worth of a college education and, by extension, the underlying long-term economic problems in America came to prominence in the public debate.

The crisis gave people like Peter Thiel an opening to question the dogma and sacred creed of a college degree as palliative for the fundamental socioeconomic problems of American society. Thiel recently almost caused a scandal by calling an investment in a college degree speculative and ill-advised. Thiel has, of course, been criticized for not getting the secret – college education is not an investment, it is something more mystical and therefore priceless.

Even now, as Ph.D.s toil behind lunch counters, waves of gold-seekers descend on the nation’s campuses. The idea that a college degree can cure all social ills is powerful indeed. To question it is to question the centerpiece of political and social stability in the country, because to say that a degree doesn’t mean much is to say that America has become a nation where it is impossible for most to meaningfully change their lives for the better. No politician can admit this openly. And so the fantasy persists.

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