Posted 20 января 2021,, 15:54

Published 20 января 2021,, 15:54

Modified 24 декабря 2022,, 22:37

Updated 24 декабря 2022,, 22:37

Overproduction of elites: what dangers are hidden behind the increase in the level of education

Overproduction of elites: what dangers are hidden behind the increase in the level of education

20 января 2021, 15:54
On the one hand, an increase in the average level of education increases wealth, but on the other hand, for each specific generation, the process of obtaining an education can be compared with a lottery, the number and amount of winnings in which are fixed.

Analyst Dmitry Nekrasov devoted his publication to one of the most important socio-economic problems, how the level of education in society affects the degree of satisfaction with life and political stability:

There is no doubt that the growth in the average level of education of the population has been and remains one of the most important factors in the economic, social and technological progress of the last couple of centuries. Better educated workers are able to perform more complex operations, use more complex tools, and are more productive. The availability of education for the lower classes increases the chances that a born genius will not be doomed to poke around in the earth all his life, but will make inventions that improve the life of mankind. The education system is one of the most optimal and equitable mechanisms of vertical social mobility. And so on and so forth.

All this is an absolute fact, however, any process has different sides, which we often tend to overlook. Education shapes not only intelligence and skills, but also expectations from life. It not only provides opportunities (increases the chances) to succeed, but also creates the risks of frustration if you fail to succeed. Let's look at these negative aspects of education from different angles.

In the novel "War and Peace" there is an episode in which Pierre, who came to Prince Andrei, tells him about how he built schools for peasants in his villages. Bolkonsky, in response, wonders why Pierre does this. According to the prince, studying at school will only make the peasants unhappy. You want to give them my education without giving them my opportunities, he says to the count. Indeed, in the strictly estate-based society of Russia at the beginning of the 19th century, even a personally free peasant who received an education had little chance of somehow applying it and with a high degree of probability was doomed to hard peasant labor all his life. It is not a fact that a peasant with an education and knowledge about another life could be as happy as a peasant who saw nothing but his village and perceives his fate as the norm.

The book by A. Banerjee and E. Duflot "Economic Science in Difficult Times" describes in detail the consequences of providing (including in the framework of an economic experiment) the opportunity for young people in India to get a better education. Some of them, thanks to the given chance, really got a better job with a better salary than their peers, deprived of the opportunity to receive an education of the appropriate level. However, there was also a large percentage of those who simply did not work for a fairly long period of time. The economy did not create a sufficient number of vacancies corresponding to their level of education, and the owners of better education did not agree to jobs that their less educated peers would agree to. More than a third of them, having meaninglessly spent in search of an unrealizable 5-10 years of life, eventually agreed to that job that did not require education. Having started that “bad” career at the age of 25-30, which they could easily start at 18, without bothering themselves with additional education and without losing several years of their lives.

If you visit Moscow shopping malls, especially those that sell high-end clothing brands, you will find that many of the sales consultants are college-educated people who have spent several years of their lives studying law, economics, or engineering. The work of a seller does not require such qualifications. If we analyze the ratio of the number of vacancies and the number of resumes on job sites in some Russian cities with a population of over one million, we can see that the ratio of vacancies and applicants, for example, among lawyers who have just graduated from college, fluctuates in the range of 10-15 resumes per vacancy, while as for non-qualifying salespeople, this ratio is in the range of 2-4 resumes per vacancy. More surprisingly, the average salaries offered to sellers with no work experience are not much lower (and even higher in some professions that do not require any qualifications) than the average salaries offered to lawyers with no work experience who just graduated from college.

It is clear that lawyers with work experience who have made a certain career, on average, receive significantly, and individual lawyers, tens or hundreds of times, more salaries than salespeople without higher education. However, let's look at those lawyers who have worked as salesmen all their lives.

Not only did they spend several years of their lives on obtaining a qualification that was not useful to them (someone else also paid their own money to pay for education, someone else paid for their education by the state, but this does not negate the wasted time of professors, the functioning of university buildings and other resources of society, wasted), which is more important over the years of study at the university, they are accustomed to seeing their future as the future of a relatively well-paid, respected, highly qualified employee. After that, many of them lost a few more years without working, because there was no work in their specialty for them. Then came humility and work as a salesman / waiter / call center employee. And many of his friends around him work in their specialty and build a successful career as a lawyer.

Would this salesman's life be happier and his job more beloved if he had not tried to study to be a lawyer, and since school planned to be a salesman, did not waste years of effort and nerves in fruitless attempts to get a job as a lawyer, but learned to enjoy the job of a salesperson? It is clear that the answer to this question will be different in each individual case, people and fates are individual, but I have little doubt that sellers who did not plan and did not try to become lawyers are, on average, happier than sellers who made an unsuccessful attempt to become them. Meanwhile, in these minutes in Russia alone, more than half a million people are studying lawyers. In the most optimistic scenario, only a third of them will work as a lawyer for many years. Someone will go into business or do something else where legal skills will not be superfluous. However, a significant part of these students will only have wasted years and frustration.

On the one hand, the rise in secondary education increases wealth and, in the long run, itself creates new jobs for the educated. In addition, many economists view education not only as an investment, but also as a consumable good (based on the concept that education is pleasant). However, on the other hand, for each specific generation, the education process can be compared to a lottery, the number and amount of winnings in which are fixed and do not depend (almost do not depend) on the number of tickets purchased. The more people buy a ticket (spend their time and money on education), the less likely the others who bought it will win.

Moreover, some studies (Clark and Oswald 1996; Francesco Ferrante 2009) in principle find a negative correlation between education and life satisfaction. And given that the level of income is positively correlated with both the level of education and the level of satisfaction with life, then among people with the same level of income, the difference in satisfaction with life is even more noticeable (at the same level of income, a more educated person is on average much less happy than less educated).

Education in the absence of sufficient places in the social hierarchy for persons of appropriate qualifications and needs inevitably leads to wasted years and guaranteed frustration for millions. It is clear that there must be some kind of competition at all levels, plus a certain level of structural imbalances in the labor market is always inevitable, so it is necessary to produce a little more qualified personnel than there are corresponding vacancies. However, how much more? What is observed today in Russia and some Western countries is more like an obvious overproduction.

The problem of bad jobs

It is necessary to be soberly aware that “salesmen” (socially not prestigious professions) are always necessary in any society. Someone will have to do “bad” work anyway. There are no realistic alternatives for this. Even if tomorrow robotization and technological progress eliminate those jobs that are considered "bad" today, some of the prestigious jobs today will be considered "bad." The attitude of those people who will do these "bad" jobs to their work is in their heads. They can be frustrated, with disappointed expectations, provoking social instability, and they can take the prevailing circumstances for granted, or even enjoy their position. This choice depends mainly on those ideas about justice and inequality that prevail in society at a particular point in time.

Let's look at how the problem of “bad jobs” is practically solved in some societies.

One of the extreme (and extremely ineffective) options for solving this problem is the caste system of India. Hundreds of millions of people from childhood are accustomed to perceive themselves as members of a particular caste. There is a caste of scavengers, there is a caste of beggars and many others. For many decades, the country's government has been making perfectly justified, but not very successful efforts to destroy the caste system. Much has been written about the disadvantages of the caste system. The negative impact of the caste system on the economy, efficient use of labor resources or social mobility is obvious.

However, like everything else, this system has another side, in this case a positive one. Representatives of different castes are initially convinced that people are not equal and do not consider it unfair. Many "bad" jobs are done in society by those who are taught from childhood to think that their destiny is this job. Within the castes, whole mythological complexes arise, explaining to their members that the work taken in their caste is not bad at all and even enviable. I do not have any objective data to compare life satisfaction, but it would be reasonable to assume that a scavenger in India, who was born in a scavenger family, married a scavenger's daughter, who knew all his life that he would be a scavenger and did not try to get an extra education, the average person is frustrated by the fact that he is much less a garbage man than a garbage man somewhere in Switzerland, even if the latter only graduated from high school and that is bad. I'm not talking about a scavenger from Switzerland who studied law, but did not find a suitable job.

It is obvious that this system largely determines the lag of India in terms of economic efficiency and living standards, and I, God forbid, do not urge to borrow this experience. I am simply illustrating one possible answer to the problem of "bad performance".

The other pole is obviously the Anglo-Saxon countries, whose experience is largely followed by the countries of Southeast Asia and modern Russia. The entire school system of education there is geared towards stimulating ambition and achievement. Students are taught from childhood that people are equal and everyone can achieve everything. But if not all, then every self-respecting successful student should strive to get into the university. For many of them, only to become a frustrated salesman after losing several years of their lives to study.

This system has a huge number of advantages over the Indian caste system. But it does not solve the problem of “bad work”. By and large, in Anglo-Saxon countries the problem of “bad jobs” is, in principle, solved almost exclusively by immigrants. If the Anglo-Saxon world was not so attractive to people from poor countries, for whom even the work of a garbage collector (taxi driver, waiter) in London is a step up in the income hierarchy compared to the work of a lawyer in Pakistan, then either all the streets of London would be littered with garbage, or a huge amount indigenous people forced to clean up the garbage would have fallen into depression or joined the ranks of radical Marxist groups. If you massively promote the American Dream and the possibility of achieving anything by any member of society, this will probably contribute to a more efficient economy, but frustration for the losers will also be provided.

Some countries of continental Europe occupy an intermediate position in this system. The education system in Germany or France is often criticized for not providing (making it difficult) for students to have a second chance. In Germany, a serious fork between future leaders and outsiders is already defined at the age of 10-12, when children are distributed to schools of different types (Gymnasium, Realschule, Hauptschule), differing in different programs and educational levels. Despite the fact that, in theory, nothing prevents even a student who enrolled in a lower-level school to finish their studies and go to university, in practice, for a significant part of students, their future educational and professional track is determined already at the age of 10-12.

In France, similar criticism is often voiced in relation to higher education institutions. There is a tangible glass ceiling between students who graduated from several elite universities and students who graduated from other higher educational institutions. Although theoretically everything is possible, in practice a person who failed to enter an elite educational institution in his youth has little chance of occupying high positions in the professional hierarchy. It is clear that the United States also has elite private schools and the Ivy League, which provide its graduates with significant advantages, but it is believed (at least by critics of the continental system) that Anglo-Saxon countries have much more opportunities to catch up in adulthood, which arose in adolescence.

Again, on the one hand, the Anglo-Saxon model probably provides a more effective use of talents that reveal themselves at different ages, but on the other hand, a German student at the age of 12 who got on a track that would make him a factory worker probably on average experiences much less frustration during his life from the fact that he did not become a highly paid lawyer than his fellow worker from the United States who dreamed of a similar career before graduating from college. It should also be noted that Germany is traditionally one of the leaders in the percentage of people who work after completing their education in a specialty, and the social prestige of blue-collar jobs in comparison with the same lawyers is traditionally higher there in comparison with the Anglo-Saxon world.

An interesting (very perverse) answer to the problem of "bad jobs" was proposed in the late USSR. The entire Soviet school system was geared toward maximizing the number of students entering universities. The number of higher educational institutions was growing rapidly, outstripping the real needs of the economy in the specialists they produced. Since the Soviet state guaranteed everyone full employment, two counter-processes began to develop in the economy. On the one hand, the staffs of all kinds of research institutes were senselessly inflated, absorbing millions of engineers who were really unnecessary for the economy, whose salaries did not grow, but at the same time, there was an increasingly obvious lack of workers in simple working specialties, and the wages at factories had to be increased de facto.

Ultimately, these two opposing trends led to the fact that low-skilled workers often received significantly more highly skilled engineers. At the same time, according to the ideas of the prestige of work rooted in society, the work of an engineer was still considered more prestigious than work at a factory. From the point of view of creating incentives and influencing labor productivity, this situation had very disastrous consequences for the economy, but from the point of view of the perception of justice and the self-awareness of those employed in “bad jobs”, the situation looked quite good.

Education and political stability

The overproduction of people with a high level of education gives rise to another problem. Structural-demographic theory (See “Ages of Discord” by Peter Turchin 2016) links the periods of increased political instability of the so-called. “Overproduction of elites”. In the aspect that interests us, the theory describes approximately the following causal relationship: suppose there is a set of resources (a certain level of income or education) that previously provided their owners with high chances of becoming a part of the political elite, and, accordingly, many owners of such resources traditionally have and political ambitions. If, for some reason, the number of owners of such a set of resources increases, and the number of seats in the political elite is usually stable, then due to the increasing competition and a large number of failed elites with unrealized political ambitions, it becomes increasingly difficult for the elite to secure consensus on important issues, and accordingly the risk of revolutions, civil conflicts, wars or political repression increases.

Regardless of the assessment of the general consistency of this theory, one cannot fail to notice that in a number of cases the overproduction of people with a good education for their time in an amount greater than the number of places in the hierarchy adequate to their education, quite often indeed became one of the important factors in the emergence of a revolutionary situation. ... This factor is especially noticeable in the example of the Great French Revolution, the Russian revolutions of the early 20th century, as well as the collapse of the USSR.

France in the 18th century becomes the undisputed world leader in terms of the size of the scientific community. In the middle of the century, a number of higher technical schools were created (the School of Roads, the School of Bridges, etc.), an explosive development of intellectual salons took place, and the number of published books and magazines sharply increased. As a result of all this, the number of relatively low-income people in the country is increasing, whose education 50-100 years before the revolution would correspond to the level of the highest political elite. It was this stratum of society that turned out to be one of the engines of the French Revolution.

As part of the reforms of Alexander II, both university and secondary education in Russia was dramatically expanded. At the beginning of the 1860s, the number of students in all higher educational institutions of the empire was about 5,000 people, by the beginning of the 1890s their number was close to 25,000 by 1917 it was 135,000. Thanks to this, by the end of the 19th century, a university diploma or graduation from a gymnasium did not guarantee graduates the prospects that they provided in the middle of the century, but the ambitions stemming from the very fact of studying in such institutions among graduates remained. The overwhelming majority of Russian revolutionaries at the beginning of the twentieth century came from such graduates as losers. If Lenin had a career as a lawyer, he would hardly have become the leader of the revolution.

In the USSR, in the 1960s and 70s, there was a blatant overproduction of engineers and holders of scientific degrees in natural sciences. In the 1960s, the growth rate of the number of employees of scientific institutions in the USSR reached 24% per year, and in just 1950-1970s, the number of scientific personnel increased 5.7 times. And if back in the 1950s the availability of a scientific degree guaranteed its holder a high social status, then for the next three decades the real value of scientific degrees was constantly linearly devalued, while the unrealized ambitions of people who invested many years of their own lives in obtaining such regalia did not disappear. A significant part of the first wave of democrats who made a great contribution to the collapse of the USSR were from the very same technical intelligentsia whose awakened ambitions to get into the elite could not be satisfied.

There are many such examples. What is curious P. Turchin, within the framework of the structural demographic theory, predicted the inevitability of an increase in political polarization and the number of politically motivated clashes in the United States. One of the arguments in favor of the high likelihood of such events, according to Turchin, was the overproduction of law school graduates from which about half of the US political elite is traditionally recruited. Between 1900 and 1970, the number of lawyers graduated per capita in the United States fluctuated slightly between 1.13 lawyers per 1,000 inhabitants (1930) and 1.5 lawyers per 1,000 residents (both in 1900 and 1970). During this time, the economy became more complex, the well-being of the population increased, but the number of lawyers did not increase, i.e. the hypothesis of a mandatory increase in their number as the economy becomes more complex does not stand up to criticism. However, after 1970, the number of lawyers began to grow exponentially, reaching currently 4 lawyers per 1000 inhabitants. According to P. Turchin, this state of affairs is fraught with increased tensions due to the large number of people whose political ambitions obviously cannot be realized.

Overproduction of elites (among other things) affects the situation in the following way. Imagine a rigid class-aristocratic society in which the number of people whose initial status, resources and education allow them to count on a place in the elite, roughly corresponds (slightly exceeds) the number of de facto existing elite positions. Accordingly, the number of people with awakened, but not realized ambitions is limited, and people who simultaneously have unfulfilled ambitions and good education in their time is even more limited.

Most of the narratives, in one way or another, are formed under the influence of elites or people with sufficient education, but for some reason did not get into the elite. You can think of some exceptions, but on the whole it is difficult to dispute the fact that most of the ideas, perceptions and concepts that had a serious impact on the development of society were formed among the educated part of it.

If the majority of educated people who are well-educated for their time are well-arranged in the current model of social structure, and there are few educated people with unrealized ambitions, then physically fewer people will criticize the current structure and form narratives about the desired changes. As I have written several times earlier, the majority's ideas about the fairness / unfairness of the current structure of society depend not only and not so much on the actual distribution of income or power, but on the prevailing ideas (narratives) about the fairness of this structure (very many medieval peasants considered modern extremely unequal structure of a just society. This was taught to them in the church). If a large number of educated people with unrealized ambitions begin to actively criticize the existing system (and this is logical since they did not find a worthy place in it), then the likelihood that the bulk of the population will become dissatisfied with it sharply increases.

On the one hand, criticism is not bad. Sometimes it provokes positive change. Without criticism, extremely unjust class societies can be preserved, and elites can carry out the most shameless exploitation of the discriminated masses. However, cases where discontent only provokes costs are almost more frequent. The costs of suppressing protests, the costs of "small victorious wars" that rulers wage to distract the populace, the costs of civil wars and unrest, and insane social experimentation, often far exceed the current costs of social injustice.

Tsarist Russia at the beginning of the twentieth century was a poor country, the majority of whose population lived in dire poverty, and the social structure was extremely unfair. However, the standard of living of most Russians, which they had in 1913, was reached in the USSR only in the early 1960s. Tens of millions of Russians died during this time from civil war, repression and hunger. The cost to dismantle an unfair system was too high. Largely precisely because the injustice of tsarism was greatly overestimated by the population (under the influence of the agitation of educated people with unrealized ambitions), and instead of progressive changes, people wanted to change everything at once.

Summing up: I in no way want to say that education is bad. But any process has two sides. Excessive education outstripping the needs of the economy gives rise to many problems.