December 13, 2002
Years of education equals money

One of my favorite recent blogger discoveries is Ted Barlow. Like all good bloggers, he convinces you that he is telling it as he truly sees it, which made this slice of wisdom, from his piece called "A few things I've learned working in market research" all the more depressing:

- The correlation between income and education is one of the strongest I’ve ever seen in social science. It forced me to believe that parents who force their whiny children to stay in high school and go to college are doing their kids a great favor.

What depresses me is that I bet you anything this is true, at any rate the correlation. Ted Barlow says it, and so do a thousand other people. We live in a hideously credential-dominated society.

I suppose this comes of there being so many of us. As individuals, if we want to earn lots of money, we have to be constantly impressing strangers, and doing it quickly. That is to say, the impressing bit has to be doable quickly. It doesn't matter how long we stress and strain to prepare the impressive thing itself. And employers who want to get very rich can't only be making use of people they already know, or always be going to the immense trouble of finding out all about the real merits of the people they are considering employing. No way would exams disappear in a totally free educational market, where children were allowed to leave school at zero and go and work down coal mines or up chimneys if they wanted to. There'd be exams in that, too.

So, you get this self-fulfilling prophecy carved into the concrete foundations of our society. Clever people do lots of "education". Stupid people don't. It becomes true. If you drop out, you are stupid, because you are condemning yourself to a lifetime of either being asked why you dropped out so early and not having a really smooth answer, or of not applying for any of those jobs where you need a smooth answer. Result, you really do get your hands on a lot less money. It's true in the same kind of way that being a Soviet dissident meant that you really were crazy, because only a crazy person would take a serious public swipe at the government of the USSR.

And, before the commenters start in, it's even true despite the fact that "school leavers" are the very definition of stupidity. Despite that, it remains true that the longer you delay becoming a school leaver, the cleverer you nevertheless must be underneath all the stupidity, and the more they pay you, despite all your school acquired stupidity.

I remember being very scornful when I first learned about how the druids used to do upward social mobility by lying in a coffin full of ice-cold water all night with only their noses above water, composing Druidic poetry. Thank goodness we don't do that kind of thing now, I thought. Then I thought some more.

I wonder, if I keep this blog going for five solid years, with something here every Monday to Friday, with maybe extra somethings at the weekend, will that count as a qualification? Probably not. Doesn't show enough willingness to knuckle under and do as I'm told. I didn't know when I began it that it might count as a qualification, therefore it wouldn't. Only when it is ordained from on high that blogging can count as a course credit, will it do so. And my infinitely depressing point here is: this makes sense.

And a Merry Christmas to you all.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:26 AM
Category: Economics of education