Twenty-first-century America may be dominated by oligarchic elites, but arguably the biggest threat to our economic and political system might be located further down the food chain. This most dangerous class comes from the growing number of underemployed, overeducated people. They’re what has been described in Britain as the lumpenintelligensia: alienated, angry, and potentially agents of our social and political deconstruction.
This is far more than an angry mob shouting in keystrokes, but the proto-proletariat of a feudalizing post-industrial society. Overall, notes one recent study, over the past 20 years we have created twice as many bachelor’s degrees as jobs to employ them. Instead of finding riches in the “new economy,” many end up in lower-paying, noncredentialed jobs. They then compete with working-class kids, often products of similarly dysfunctional high schools; an estimated one-third of American working-age males are now outside the labor force, suffering high rates of incarceration, as well as drug, alcohol, and other health issues.
Although they are not subject to the same pressures of the working class, the fate of those attending college and even graduating is far from bright. This is the most-anxious generation in recent history, and for good reason. Today more than 40 percent are working in jobs that don’t require their degree, according to a recent report from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Another study notes that most may never ascend to the kinds of jobs that graduates have historically enjoyed.
This is a global phenomenon. Over a quarter of Chinese graduates are unemployed, and the number is increasing.
In India, one in three graduates up to the age of 29 is unemployed, according to a Labour Ministry report released last November, almost three times the country’s overall unemployment rate. A recent U.N. analysis also suggested that this huge bulge of underemployed educated people could undermine the country’s stability in the years ahead.
As Greta Thunberg and her legions remind us, young, discontented people have tended to push toward the extremes. In Latin America, underemployed graduates have long been a source of disruption. Today roughly half of all Latin American college students don’t graduate, and many never really see a payback for their time in college.
A similar pattern of disruption drove the Arab Spring. There, as well as in the Balkans, unemployed and underemployed college graduates have been a major disruptive force. In Africa, where youth unemployment is also high and the numbers are growing fastest, college graduates who compose barely 7 percent of the total workforce also labor in low-end jobs.
Read the rest of this piece at National Review.
Joel Kotkin is the author of The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class. He is the Roger Hobbs Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and Executive Director for Urban Reform Institute. Learn more at joelkotkin.com and follow him on Twitter @joelkotkin.