Friday, 24 July 2015

30 Year Childhood

Among all the reforms proposed for Greece as it lumbers through it's debt crisis I haven't seen anyone mention the fact that so many of that country's young people remain in "education" for such an absurdly long time. I remember when I was at university the extraordinary amount of people from that country who did Masters' degrees and doctorates, and their generous representation on the academic staff of nearly every department.

Of course that can't be anything to do with the economic crisis, can it? Education is good, and pays great dividends in later life as more qualified people earn more money, pay more tax and generally contribute so much more to a productive and wealthy economy, and an enlightened, intelligent society. If it was as simple as that Greece would make Switzerland look like a backwards third world country.

A few years after that when visiting a Greek friend from university I got talking to a policeman in an Athens suburb. He had studied in England, a Master's Degree in sociology, and later a Ph.D, focusing on some obscure facet of that subject. And here he was, patrolling a quiet corner of Athens, stopping graffiti artists and attending traffic incidents.

Being a normal policeman on the beat is an inherently simple job. Yes, you get to meet some of societies worst types and you're thrown into the middle of intractable disputes between unreasonable people. But you don't actually have to solve any of them as such. So long as they stop beating each other and smashing things up then you're doing it right. If it needs to go further then you take it to court. You don't need a Philosophical Doctorate in sociology, as evidenced by the vast numbers of policemen around the world without such qualifications.

There's nothing particularly wrong with a well qualified and intelligent policeman, and this is only one anecdote, but if this is indicative of a wider trend in Greece then it does point towards over education. You see all that time that this man was studying in Britain with support from the Greek government he was not only using Greek public and private money to do so, but he was not working or paying tax in Greece. Nor was he building the experience upon which people's careers progress. Unless he was a child prodigy he would have been close to 30 by the time he did actually start working and paying tax, for a job that he could have done straight from school when he was 18.

I believe this is indicative not only of Greece but of Europe and the wider world. An unquestioning obsession with education is meaning that people don't start work until their mid to late 20s. This has a knock on effect throughout his career as despite presumably tremendous theoretical knowledge, at age 50 he will still be 10 years behind contemporaries who studied less in terms of his experience.

The other result is educational inflation, where a degree is expected for most basic entry level jobs. Everyone has a degree. If you don't have a degree you must be some sort of failure, or at best a bit of a maverick. It might be a degree in Surfing but you must have one if you are to start any sort of career. And if, heaven forbid, you left school at 16 then you might as well go straight to prison. A Master's degree is probably about the equivalent of what a solid Bachelors was 30 years ago, and all the while that you are attaining these bits of paper you are sucking up public and private resources, and contributing nothing to the exchequer. Actually by age 16 year people are physically and mentally developed enough to work, as they have done for centuries before our obsession with academic credentials stole a decade of our productive lives.

Perhaps worse than the waste this entails though is the effect it has on those who feel that they simply must get a degree at all costs. At the very time they should be out learning about the world, people feel trapped and frustrated, learning abstract nonsense in an environment that is essentially a continuation of primary school. This often leads them to wrongheaded left wing politics, as evidenced by the proud crowing of organiations like Greenpeace and the Liberal Democrats about how much support they gain from the under 25s. This is overwhelmingly the support of people who have never actually had to stand on their own two feet or make any decisions which matter. They may be 25 but their mentality is more akin to someone 10 years younger.

Like the debt crisis in general, Greece is at the forefront of this strange phenomenon but not the only one. Across the western world, and indeed much of the eastern, people are spending longer and longer at university, acquiring qualifications which will gain them little to nothing in terms of financial well-being, and at best dubious "personal development." However every degree earned and every young adult whose childhood is extended to nearly middle age is counted as some sort of a success for politicians eager to tell the world how much they're investing in education, and how they are creating a highly skilled workforce fit for the modern age. In reality many of the alleged beneficiaries of this policy would be far better off learning a skill while earning some money, creating some value and even paying a little tax at the same time.