October 14, 2015

College as part of lifestyle competition, not for later career / wealth / consumption

To rein in the problem of the higher education bubble and student loan debt, we first need to understand why so many adolescents are going to college in the first place.

The widespread but incorrect view is that it is for careerist reasons such as learning useful knowledge, acquiring useful skills, getting to know the ins and outs of some sector of the economy, or networking with potential employers. Or, if the observer is more cynical, a college diploma is for signaling to potential employers that you are smart and conscientious enough to be worth employing, regardless of what you may or may not have studied.

This is why the Baby Boomers first poured out of their small home towns and into college, but that was way back in the '70s. Unfortunately, given their control over the media, the Boomer view persists to this day.

In their day, the only point of going to college was to get a diploma, and since the generation before them wasn't very credentialed, a bachelor's degree gave them a substantial leg up when they were searching for their first real jobs. They had to convince employers that a piece of paper from a college was important, but they won that propaganda war, perhaps owing also to a shift in the mindset of the employer class.

In any case, they didn't care too much about "campus life" beyond the basics of there being a willing student body to get drunk and make out, and an utterly no-frills house or apartment to host the party. They could have gotten high back in their home towns -- and probably did already during high school -- so the point of going off to college was primarily to be able to secure a decent middle-class job and decent pay as a young adult.

As more and more high school grads decided to go to college, a larger and larger fraction of 20-somethings had a bachelor's, diluting its relative value in the job market.

However, we shouldn't let that fact distract us from the changing purpose of college as the higher education bubble as inflated to such extremes. For if students were truly concerned with the career-and-income value of a degree, once they wised up to the diluted value with so many of them in circulation, they would take measures to try to get the most possible out of it.

Whereas before students might have majored in arts and humanities, they would now only major in engineering, accounting, and other employable majors. They would also bust their ass more in their coursework, to make sure their skill-set was maxed out come job-hunting time after graduation. And they would ruthlessly scrutinize the colleges they were thinking of applying to -- with a keen eye to which ones added the most value to the incomes of their graduates.

Instead we observe the exact opposite. "Value added to income" is not just hovering somewhere out in their peripheral vision, they pay no attention to it at all when narrowing down a list a colleges to apply to. They pride themselves on doing as little and as poor-quality work as possible in their classes: "All right, BS-ed another essay an hour before it was due, and still got a B! Unstoppable!" Unstoppable grade inflation, moron -- that's why you got good grades. They make a point of shying away from employable majors, with a steady proliferation of junk majors fed by a ballooning demand for pointless studies -- communications, business, gender studies, African-American studies, etc. Majors that are established and respectable, yet still unemployable, continue to be popular -- philosophy, psychology, history, etc.

If it seems like students aren't going to college to prepare for a better career and higher income and consumption, it's because they're not. Instead, they are preparing for the competition in the arena of lifestyle striving rather than wealth / career striving.

In this earlier post, I discussed these two separate avenues of competitiveness in the context of generational differences. Silents and Boomers -- the Me Generation -- are career strivers, with Boomers pouring into colleges to get a leg up on the Silents, who were career strivers but did not go to college in large numbers. Competitive people will never leave the battle arena, so the careerist avenue has been closed off to new competitors. Gen X and Millennials chose to compete in an arena that was less saturated with contestants, and found it in lifestyle-based competition.

A big part of lifestyle competition is knowledge, but not necessarily of the scholarly or intellectual kind. It's whatever you need to know about, have an opinion on, and be prepared to discuss and passive-aggressively debate with the others in the contest. "Do vaccines cause autism?" is of minor importance on a scholarly or scientific level. But it just happened to be one of those areas of knowledge where lifestyle strivers became expected to have very informed and strong opinions on, whether they are pro or con.

The other part of lifestyle competition is an emphasis on leisure -- not so much with having loads of free time, but what you do with it. Do your leisure activities make you a superior person, or reveal you to be a sub-human loser? There is only so much leisure time in the day, so these contests will revolve around the most basic and frequent non-work activities -- food and drink, lounging around the home environment, sports or athletics, etc.

Combine the contest over knowledge with the contest over leisure activities, and you get decadence. Lifestyle strivers become obsessed with increasingly arcane points about seemingly mundane leisure activities, and having to flit from one fad to the next in order to not appear to be taking a break but still vigorously invested in the competition. Who is cooking the most original and titillating variation on the mac-and-cheese dinner? Who has the latest style jogging shorts? Who has the most on-point living room decor? Whose playlist contains bands that no one else has ever heard of? Ad nauseam.

If all that is the long road ahead of adolescents, then they had better get a solid training in young adulthood. In fact their parents already model the adult lifestyle striver behavior while the children are still school-aged -- bringing home bacon-and-avocado mac-and-cheese for dinner from Whole Foods, so their kids will know what to order when they're on their own. The parents drag the kids along to IKEA so that they'll learn what kinds of trendy furniture to pick out once they're living away at a college dorm room, or their first apartment.

But the parents can only accomplish so much by modeling the behavior. The kids actually have to leave home and begin lifestyle striving in earnest on their own. Hence the current form that the college experience takes.

I've already detailed how the lifestyle-striving orientation guides their choices of college, major, and other aspects that relate most directly to employment and income prospects. Let's take a look at some other revealing ways that college life is more about preparing kids for lifestyle striving rather than career striving.

- Students would rather not work. If the purpose were to take their first baby steps toward a grown-up career, they would all want to work. If they do work today, it's only to provide a little spending money for their lifestyle pursuits, not to learn the ins and outs, nor to establish trust with an employer and get a good recommendation for future employers.

- Colleges spend big bucks not on anything that will help their students earn more money or be more employable. The overwhelming trend during the higher ed bubble has been on providing more leisure and lifestyle services, both mundane amenities (cafe in the library) and spectacles (pro-level sports stadium). Libraries are hang-out spots where no books are read, instead of places for browsing the stacks and reading books that would help you earn more after graduation.

- Dining halls must cater to the nascent foodie snobs, offering charcuterie rather than meat loaf, located in separate "stations" rather than in a single assembly-line, with lighting and decoration appropriate for a sit-down restaurant rather than a public school cafeteria.

- Exercise equipment that a person would ordinarily need a gym membership to have access to.

- Always having something to do for boosting your arts-and-culture quotient. Even mid-tier colleges spend big bucks to acquire more fine art to display in professionally designed galleries. The film club screens the classics every weekend. And there are regular performances from music and dance groups, from both students and professionals.

- What the particular college tells other rival strivers about your lifestyle. Two colleges are equally good at academics and all that other unimportant stuff, but you chose that one that signals you're an urban boho-chic type of striver, rather than the sports buff type of striver. A college's brand and brand value revolve around these qualitative lifestyle matters. 

And so on and so forth.

None of these sweeping, ubiquitous changes to college life make any sense under the view that college is for getting a credential, leading to a good job, leading to good income, leading to higher consumption levels. They make perfect sense under the view that young people today expect to have no shot at the career competition and are opting instead for lifestyle competition, and that the college years are training them for that kind of striving.

It's missing the point somewhat to portray college life as merely a four-year playground experience, as though their decadence will be useless in the real world afterward. A lot of effort still goes into mastering the ins and outs of lifestyle striving -- what topics to be knowledgeable about, what pastimes to pursue, which foods are cool, which interior design schemes are cool, etc.

This isn't just fitting into youth culture or the broader culture -- there's a sense that they're going to be tested on this stuff for the rest of their lives, and they have to be able to keep up with the lifestyle contests no matter how the wheel of fashion spins. So it really is a kind of training or apprenticeship that segues seamlessly into adult status competition (rather than being a pointless vacation), only it's for lifestyle striving rather than career striving.

To wrap things up, how does this correct view let us see what's going on with the loud demands among Millennials to have their student loan debt canceled or to receive a tuition-free college life from the government?

Well, it won't do us any good to lecture them about how they can pay off their debt once they use their degree to get a decent job. They know their degree is worthless -- they went to college for lifestyle striving, not to earn more money.

What they're really asking for is state-subsidized training and apprenticeship in the domain that they'll be competing for status in as adults -- lifestyle contests. In their minds, it's akin to state-subsidized high school classes in math, science, and technology for those who are planning to strive in the career domain. Fairness would seem to argue for subsidized training for the lifestyle strivers too.

Of course, one of those domains is productive for society, and the other only enriches the individual's reputation. But the productive niche is already beyond saturated with incumbents and foreigners to whom the work could be outsourced. We can't expect most young adults to focus on career-building when there are hardly any decent careers waiting to be filled. It's only natural that they will mostly turn to lifestyle striving as their form of "bettering themselves," while accepting a crummy job and crummy living circumstances.

Thus, the decadent and fruitless competition in the lifestyle domain among Gen X-ers and especially Millennials is ultimately the fault of all the competitiveness in the career domain, where Silents and Boomers still run the show and get most of the wealth and status. As if hyper-competitiveness in the career world weren't bad enough in itself (white collar crime taking off like a rocket, selling out the country to make an extra buck, and the like), their tenacious incumbency has created a ripple effect whereby the later generations are not bothering to enter that saturated niche and are focusing their energy and effort on decadence contests instead of something productive.

Reining in the competitiveness in the career world would not only clean things up in the productive part of the economy, it would also free up more decent jobs for younger adults, blunting the appeal of lifestyle striving. Lower demand for lifestyle striving would deflate the higher ed bubble and restore sanity to tuition costs, as well as restore the college's mission to being productive somehow (economically, intellectually, or whatever, but somehow).

It's beyond the scope of this post to talk about how to start reining in the anarchic war of all against all in the career world. The important lesson for now, though, is that many of the things that are going wrong in the world are interconnected, often with one causing another, so that reforming one area will set off a chain reaction and reform some other area as well.

12 comments:

  1. Putting such an emphasis on extracurricular activies in college admissions was part of selecting for lifestyle status-striving. People aren't serious about competing intensely in their chose sport or volunteer efforts, its more about lifestyle signalling.

    IQ tests used to be huge in the 60 and 70s when colleges were focused more on steering students towards the right career. And college was, of course, much cheaper.

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  2. The other major part of the college application nowadays is the "personal statement," AKA give us the sales pitch on the value of your personal brand. This part only began after college switched from being a credentialing process to a lifestyle experience -- ask your Boomer parents if they wrote a tortured "personal statement" when applying to college.

    It's common to dismiss the personal statement as servile pandering by the college to the student's narcissism, but college administrators probably know more about their business than snarky contrarians. It serves the very necessary function of making sure that the students get what they were promised -- a campus life and student body that would provide whatever lifestyles were advertised in their propaganda and campus tours.

    If too many students were admitted who came from outside the school's intended range of lifestyles, the majority of students would complain for their money back.

    I literally, I thought I was going to be enjoying a boho-chic kind of atmosphere, and then literally five seconds after moving into the dorm, it's over-run with dudebros. Seriously, administration? Really?"

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  3. The confused contrarian also discusses the disappearance of IQ tests in employment as feeding the higher ed bubble -- if they can't just give a simple intelligence test to applicants, they'll have to go through a whole four-year college program to prove they're smart and hard-working enough.

    The idea is that this is a bunch of waste that the students and parents would rather not take on, if only they could signal their IQ and work ethic in a simpler way, but are just going along with the college process because they can't fight the system that bans IQ testing.

    Not that there isn't something to that, but it's missing the big picture. If students, or the parents guiding their children, were applying to college just to signal to future employers how smart and hard-working they are, they would show all the signs of career-orientation that I detailed -- obsessing over how much each college added to the value of its grads, obsessing over getting into a "good major" employability-wise, busting their ass in coursework, etc.

    Students and their parents show no interest in those topics, aside from the top 15% who would have been going to college in the pre-bubble period (say, the 1950s). They do freak out about "getting into a good school," but everyone else could care less. And even the "good school" people pay undue attention to the lifestyle value of the school's brand.

    If students wanted to signal intelligence and work ethic, they could simply put their SAT and high school GPA on their application or resume for their first job. Employers would then consider it "along with many other qualitative factors," just as they do with the undergraduate degree.

    Needing to jump through an extra hoop to signal brains and conscientiousness doesn't lead to the quantum leap of four-or-more years of college, to the tune of $50,000 in debt. High school record would do fine (without an overt IQ test, which the SAT already satisfies as an "achievement" test). At most, a year program that required the SAT to get into, and was no-frills in order to keep down costs for the consumer and not have to go into deep debt.

    Why haven't such programs and schools sprung up in the 30+ years of the higher ed bubble, if there truly were pent-up demand for roundabout IQ signaling? Because that's not what college is about! Entrepreneurs are not that clueless -- they see that the money is in providing for a lifestyle experience that will train the consumers for high-paced lifestyle striving throughout adulthood. There's no money in how to skirt the regulations about IQ testing for future employers.

    So even if employers were allowed to administer good old fashioned IQ tests, the higher ed bubble would hardly be affected at all. There would be no collective "Phew!" from the students or their parents, who would continue along their merry way of lifestyle striving on campus.

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  4. With the proliferation of beards the last 2-3 years, I'm not holding my breath that people of any generation are going to wake up any time soon. It's pretty funny, seeing meek Millennials hiding behind face fur. At least when Boomer males adopted beards, it was done to be rebellious and also as part of the "back to the land" ideal. But what exactly are Gen X-ers or Millennials trying to prove? They just look lazy and insecure. Also, wasn't it cool how back in the 70'-90's you could tell teens and young adults apart? In Millennial land, there's no real impetus to think for yourself or stand out.

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  5. What do you think about the following degrees: Finance, Economics, Computer Science, Business, and Accounting. Also what degree did you get at college?

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  6. We seem to be living in an age of runaway conformity, at least in real life.
    Vision has been replaced by consumerism, as if all economic goals have now been achieved.

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  7. The article seemed to gloss over one of the reasons that college became more "popular" in the 1960s and 1970s was paradoxically due to the GI Bill (due to military service) and the exemption from the military draft for students) to avoid military service.

    The male college enrollment rate peaked in the late 1960s/

    http://www.prb.org/Publications/Articles/2007/CrossoverinFemaleMaleCollegeEnrollmentRates.aspx

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  8. This post illustrates why the argument that "college isn't preparing people for the real world" is wrong. You hear that argument from conservatives and even liberals like Jonathan Haidt who think that PC indoctrination is somehow handicapping students post-graduation.

    No, it's not. It's preparing them to be a "good fit" at most organizations they're likely to try and work for. (The "good fit" concept is popular, though you witness it less in job ads than during the interview process.)

    This is bad news for the rationalists, because thinking for its own sake marks you as a tone-deaf weirdo who makes people uncomfortable. But its worse for conservatives. You'll be a "bad fit" at most organizations if you wear your religiosity on your sleeve and god forbid, fail to watch Game of Thrones or frequent beer gardens.

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  9. Right, if colleges were sending their students in the opposite direction from where they'll end up as adults, parents would revolt. Or at least, only a small select group of parents would send their kids there.

    Sure enough, that's what religious or puritanical colleges are like -- nobody outside of the Mormon heartland is competing to get into BYU, despite it being a decent school. And those within the Mormon heartland are still preparing their kids for adult life within the region.

    The confused conservative is somewhat right about the Marxist / SJW takeover of colleges to be far beyond what they will encounter after college. But perhaps the point of college is to provide an overly intense rite of passage to initiate the aspiring elite into the actual elite.

    Frat members don't suffer through all the crap that the pledges do. And strivers in the job market will "only" encounter some soft-feminist / PC harpy in the HR department, with relatively soft-toned diversity training videos. By putting aspiring elites through even more strident and punishing PC doctrines and practices at college, they are broken down and built up stronger in their transformed state, ready to parrot back whatever they need to, and to behave however they're supposed to, with the PC surveillance cameras turned on.

    Once-in-a-lifetime initiation rites tend to be far more painful than those that are frequent updates of membership. In primitive tribes, the "boy becoming a man" initiation may involve abduction, cutting, branding, sleep deprivation, and so on. Whereas with your driver's license, every five years you have to stand in line for an hour or so at a boring DMV surrounded by Tower of Babel people.

    To enter the elite class, college is the one-time gateway, so it must be more intense in making you run the gauntlet -- not academically or intellectually, since that's not what you'll be doing in your hopefully elite career, but by giving you the proper set of beliefs and practices in order to signal your membership in the elite class.

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  10. The problem you bring up comes down to conservative critics, observers, and policy wonks all living in a sheltered think tank / academic / old time-y LARPing world, unaware of how strongly today's elite employers want a PC workforce and workplace. Colleges aren't preparing students for the conservative think tanks where the critics are cloistered, but those places don't employ many people and are not where students are headed after graduation.

    A further weakness from their being sheltered is who they blame if you bring this up. In their mind, employers are just going along with what the Federal Gubmint are ordering them to do, or else. Not that there isn't a grain of truth to that. But it misses how PC and multiculti the economic elites already are. Most of them are eager to brag in their advertising about how diverse their workforce is, and how evolved their corporate philosophy is.

    But you wouldn't know that if you've been living in a think tank your whole life.

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  11. Another reason why the PC/SJW stuff is pushed in college is that students are now seen by colleges as valuable customers - ie, people who are always right and should never feel offended. Today students are going to university for a pleasant lifestyle experience, not to have serious intellectual debates about important stuff and risk having their fragile egos smashed in the process.

    For example, Camille Paglia was already complaining about college being turned into summer camp in 1991:

    "What's happening on campus is--I started feeling it twenty years ago, actually, the way the campus in America was drifting away from intellectual life, the way the campus was becoming a summer camp, the way the universities were beginning to focus their strategies on getting parents to pay money to send their children there, so we're going to give the kids "a nice experience." So now, you see, the Student Services departments are taking over."

    Hence, while the liberal right complains about the political correctness of the liberal left, the market obsessed liberal right is also playing a vital role in promoting it.

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  12. " In their mind, employers are just going along with what the Federal Gubmint are ordering them to do, or else. Not that there isn't a grain of truth to that. But it misses how PC and multiculti the economic elites already are."

    The Me Gen is still stuck in 1970. They began to chafe at the G.I. system around then, and even as the Me gen greys and dominates the current system, they still associate the government (and really, authority in general) with sanguine but naive G.I.s. Silents always are concerned with making a splash to make up for a joyless youth (a quest that never ends, just look at elderly Silent elites still hogging tons of power and money) while Boomers never want to cede the shot calling to anyone else (including other Boomers). Boomers also never take responsibility; it's always the older generations fault or the younger generation's fault. Or it's the unions fault or the governments fault. They covet power and influence yet refuse to accept the accountability that comes with anything. The lower class ones don't want to admit that the ultra competitiveness of Boomers to attain elite status has created the sort of climate in which venality and tyranny flourish.

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