Wednesday, December 05, 2012

We don't need no (more) education.

I've read several hand-wringing articles about how the current generation is on track to be less educated than its parents.  What's wrong with that?  We can be prosperous with less education.  In fact, we may even be more prosperous with less education.

First, education, like everything else, suffers from diminishing returns on investment.  Turning a peasant into a factory worker is fairly easy, increases productivity immensely, and can be done with just about any individual.  Turning a Ph.D. into a post-doc requires a tremendous investment, provides only a marginal return, and only a tiny sliver of the population is able to perform at that level.  We may be able to eke out more returns by increased investment in education, but if we have more profitable things to invest in, why should we, as a society, devote scarce resources to an extremely marginal investment in an elite?

Second, technology has reached a tipping point with regards to education.  In generations past, every new technology required new expertise, and more education, to master.  The technology that we are producing today requires less expertise, and less education, to master.  For example, most entry-level accounting jobs have disappeared, because entry level accounting is done by a relatively-unskilled data entry clerk with a computerized accounting program.  Training entry level accountants is unnecessary, because there's no role for an entry level accountant.  It's only on the upper margins, the creators of new technology, that increasing levels of education are needed--and once again, producing those returns requires an investment in an elite.

Essentially, every year of education that does not translate into productivity is wasted. A pizza-delivering-Ph.D. is waste, not investment.  If we're becoming less educated, perhaps that's because we've got better things to do with our time and our money.

2 Comments:

Blogger Yoel Natan said...

I think you must be living and thinking in the fading age when people retired after 30 years of work, or at age 62, so a few years for higher education was a significant chunk of time by comparison to the limited time allotted for a career.

People are living and working longer, so a few years in higher education would do many people good, and society good. Already the GOP wants to raise Medicare eligibility to 67, which pretty much means people will plan on retiring at age 67 from now on. In the future the age will probably go higher. So instead of someone working from age 18 to 67 (49 years) without the benefit of higher education, I'd say that they'd be much more happy and productive working 45 years with 4 years of higher education (22 to 67).

1:46 AM  
Blogger Octavo Dia said...

Yes, increasing levels of education are possible to sustain if they increase more slowly than lifespans and economic growth. Just because it's possible, however, doesn't mean it's desirable. As I demonstrated above, if you're devoting resources to education that is un- or under-utilized, you're wasting those resources.

As for happiness, people with high levels of education who cannot find jobs that require high levels of education are typically less satisfied, not more satisfied.

6:29 AM  

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