Sunday, December 19, 2010

History of Now

Edge of the American West is on hiatus. And I'm sad. EotAW was the first blog I followed online, beginning three years ago. And having been a nodding acquaintance of blog proprietor Eric Rauchway when I was in graduate school, I felt as though I had some deranged-stalker-type personal connection to it.

Blogs come and go. Whether they're worth the effort in the abstract or not, you can't argue with a blogger who decides that it is no longer worth it for them. It happens, and I'll leave the sic gloria transit mundi of it all to someone who actually knows Latin.

Except this: I'm a hopelessly optimistic person, but the hiatising of a great University of California blog is still a depressing sign that the demographic trends first spotted by David Foot are not magically going to release our grip on us any time soon. And by "us," I mean the professionally over-educated. (But mainly you guys, who, all my pessimism aside, have a far better chance of getting gainful academic employment than I do.) We're just doomed, something I shall now dilate upon.

 First of all: why does a bag of go like EoTAW suddenly deflate?

Well, there's politics, of course. The pong of decay from the American body politic had overwhelmed  the Febreze, and someone had to move the body. But now, with the American election cycle at the bottom of its secular activity level, the professional side of things is no longer driving activity?

Why? This is where I invoke spirits from the vasty deep, or in this case, a talking head who had his vogue back in 1996, inspired by an already five-year-old novel. The problem was that there were a relatively small number of people born during the Great Depression and during the Second World War, and a huge number in the generation after, beginning in 1947, peaking in 1960, and ending in 1966. Then, in 1971 the Canadian population increase rate fell below replacement, and it has been there ever since.

As Foot says, it was good to be in on the beginning of the wave, not that anyone is contesting that

and bad to be at the back of it. It's living in a world where whenever you apply for a job, everyone else does, too. And believe me, fellow "Generation Xers," that's not going to change. Freedom 75: it's no joke.

 As the years go by and birth rates fall everywhere, it becomes increasingly clear that this is no anomaly, that large human populations are capable of choosing very low birth rates, and that the trend is sufficiently persistent and widespread that we really ought to be looking past blaming the Pill. That is, in part, why, although Canadian immigration rates have made up for the low birth rate, they have never risen as high as planned, and cannot save us in the long run. In the very long run --say, by 2050-- there will be no immigrants.

For us Xers, it was a very visceral experience. In every grade we entered, the class following behind was smaller.  And required fewer teachers. It was like we were the Road Runner, rolling up the road behind us as we went, only instead of blacktop, we were rolling up the educational infrastructure. Many schools have closed in the last 20 years, far more than urban dwellers appreciate. Again, this is not a bad thing for early Boomer teachers, because they have seniority. For those trying to get into the game, it has been an ongoing heartbreak.

Fortunately for us people with unused PhDs, postsecondary educational enrollment does not correlate with population growth. Postsecondary education is invaluable in helping us navigate the modern, fast-paced, workplace. As high as university enrollment is right now, it can only go higher. If an electron can get to infinity, why not something bigger, like the percentage of the population enrolled in upper-level history seminars at the University of British Columbia? Well, good reason, as it turns out. University enrollment, except graduate school enrollment, has been rising more slowly than population. Given that we are not going to push the proportion of the population enrolled at university much higher than it already is, the collapse in the size of the youth cohort means that actual Canadian university enrollment will begin falling, perhaps as early as next year.

But don't people who go to university get paid more, if not much  more? Isn't that a call for better and more focussed instruction? Since focus isn't my strong suit, I'll leave that part alone, but we can also hope to bring in lots of foreign dollars students.

Except, here is doom in the form of some  very interesting statistics. Apparently, the starting wage of new American lawyers are distributed into two distinct bands. Some expect $60--$70,000/year, others $130,000/year. Now, it should not be surprising that there is a difference between those who go to elite schools and get on with big firms and those who graduate from weak schools and go to work as ambulance chasers.

Except that the bimodal distribution indicates that this is not what is happening. What it is indicating is that there are two kinds of lawyers, distinguished not by their educational attainments or ability, but by something else. Some inherent, well, let's call a spade a spade: gentility of manner. Some are born peers, some are born commoners. There seems, all snarkiness of tone aside, to be an aristocracy of birth carefully hidden in the professional geography of the legal world. Which, to the insider, has got to be the least surprising thing anyone has ever said on a blog. But it is also a discouraging fact for those who want to make their way in the world of academe.

Why? Because we have been assuming that the educational wage premium is a product of post-secondary education. If you go through law school, and get a place articling, and get a job afterwards, you make more money than if you left school at sixteen to be a trucker. Only, if you start lawyerising at 28 at $55,000/year, and hope to reach $120,000 at the peak of your career, that won't be true. the trucker isn't exactly slaving away at the minimum wage, he doesn't have a massive student loan, and in fact on the contrary has had 12 years to build up an investment portfolio, and he probably lives somewhere cheap. It's really only towards the higher end of the spectrum that a young lawyer is going to make traction and get on towards opening up an earnings gap with the dropout. We've been assuming that law is a "career open to the talents," that just any lawyer can get there. But what if this whole "aristocracy" thing holds? If you're not born with a silver spoon in your mouth, are those high six figure incomes realistically in your reach?

And yet it is a given that modern North America does not have a nobility. There's no titles, no requirement for four quarters of noble birth to get into the army. How would it work? Well, the interesting thing about the draconian restrictions on profession in Eighteenth Century France is that they only took their final form as the idea of nobility came under attack. Effective noble privilege arises more subtly, from what it has recently been in vogue to call, borrowing from the biological sciences, it seems "social signalling." By acquiring certain visible attributes, individuals signal that they are suitable colleagues, mates, sons-in-law, what have you.

"Oh, you mean, like going to a good school?" Exactly. And it won't work if everyone does it. If universities are going to survive in their historic role of perpetuating the North American ruling class, they have to shed enrollment, not increase it.

With one exception: if we have a robust demand for educated professionals, we can easily visualise a situation where universities take on something of the role of a wartime armed forces training school, which is devoted to ensuring that there are as many aeroplane mechanics as possible, as opposed to making sure that those who do graduate have the tone required to marry a Cabot Lodge. We can visualise a wealthy, growing state like California investing in a massive, centralised higher education scheme to pump out all those necessary professionals.

You know. Like the demand for teachers to educate the bulging Baby Boom that's coming up.

Oops. Much of the debate over the progressive defunding of the University of California system is driven by the idea that the politicians, who have admittedly not handled the state's finances well, are making a preventable mistake. I disagree. The postsecondary sector is overgrown. Rationalisation is inevitable and unavoidable, and I think that the thought is percolating through more than a few minds.

I don't mean to be discouraging here, by the way. My personal introduction to this idea came from a monograph about "the Generation of 1820" in France, one of whose main points was just how distinguished that generation of congenitally disappointed youth actually ended up being. Professional disappointment isn't the end of the world. Society is not doomed, either. On a larger scale, maybe we should think about engineering a new Baby Boom. After all, the population decline after the end of the Roman Empire reversed itself. We can do the same, one would think. What would it take?

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