The Changing Economy Means College Isn't for Everyone

The next generation’s economy seems poised to give us every reason to stop glorifying lawyers and CEOs.


By Scott Galupo, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

Let me commend to your reading attention two fine feature articles that are begging to be twinned—Hanna Rosin’s “End of Men” cover story for the Atlantic and a piece by the Washington Post’s Carol Morello on the apparent movement of college-educated males into skilled trades like plumbing and carpentry.

Rosin writes of a “role reversal” underway in American society, with the postindustrial economy rewarding “thinking and communicating” above “physical strength and stamina.”

As a result, women are now a majority of the workforce as well as colleges and professional schools. “Men dominate just two of the 15 job categories projected to grow the most over the next decade: janitor and computer engineer. Women have everything else—nursing, home health assistance, child care, food preparation,” writes Rosin.

Combine these long-term prospects with the terrible economy of the last two years, and you can easily see why young men are rediscovering the value of what I grew up thinking of as “real jobs.” In small-town South Jersey, a college education was something to aspire to for its own sake, of course. But it was also seen as a kind of practical fallback: “You better go to school, because you can’t turn a screw.”

To her credit, Rosin, a liberal, is less triumphal than matter-of-fact. She seems genuinely worried about a school system that reasonable people acknowledge is, on average, better-suited to the natural aptitudes of girls. She concludes that “allowing generations of boys to grow up feeling rootless and obsolete is not a recipe for a peaceful future.”

Maybe, though, the solution lies not in the reform of schools but, rather, in the rediscovery of an old way of thinking: that college isn’t for everyone. That way, boys in their late teens might take up apprenticeships earlier than age 25, as Morello notes, after several years of giving college the, well, old college try.

Rosin notes that a lot of current male unemployment is due to the erosion of America’s manufacturing base. But, while the trades aren’t recession-proof by any means, plumbers and electricians will never be far out of demand, and can’t be outsourced.

For many young males in this country, turning a screw may just turn out to be the more lucrative career track. If Matthew Crawford, the University of Chicago-trained philosopher turned motorcycle repairman, is right, it’s also the more satisfying track.

In his book, Shop Class as Soul Craft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work, Crawford argues that physical, hands-on work is ultimately more existentially satisfying than the white-collar otiosity that both boys and girls are driven toward—by parents, teachers, guidance counselors, and politicians.

Our culture glorifies lawyers, CEOs, and other master-of-the-universe types far more than it should.

The next generation’s economy seems poised to give us every reason to stop doing so—and to expand what we mean by “professional.”

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