Unraveling employment inequality

How to create an opportunity-for-all ethic

Much is made of the dearth of economic opportunity and income equality across the U.S. workforce. Though a perennial issue, the conventional wisdom these days appears to be that there are segments of the American population for whom high-paying jobs are elusive or non-existent. This belief persists despite the lowest unemployment rate we’ve seen in nearly 20 years.

The primary reason, we’re told, for this state of affairs boils down to the fact that an automated, globalized and corporate-led economy produces winners and losers — a somewhat different set, apparently, than the more nationally based economy of yesteryear.

Inequality, or even the perception of it, tends to raise the hackles of key constituencies, such as left-leaning individuals and working-class folks who find that many low- to mid-skilled jobs are evaporating. These groups agree there is a fundamental unfairness to inequality, and they’re inspired to fight against it, sometimes in dramatically different ways, whenever possible.

But one element of inequality that I don’t see getting too much attention pertains to the number of people with a college education versus those without one.

As we look over the last half century or so, we can see that this is a significant economic phenomenon. Indeed, the discrepancy between those with and without higher education impacts a variety of inequality factors, including not just income, but housing, community makeups, cultural upbringing, socioeconomics and social status.

The numbers of working-aged Americans with college degrees is steadily rising and now is at or slightly above 40 percent, according to the Lumina Foundation. That’s 10 times the number compared to 100-plus years ago, when Andrew Carnegie, of all people, claimed college was irrelevant and even damaging. Despite the high cost of college, projections are that attendance will continue to grow another 15 percent by 2025.

Bruce Cain, a Stanford University political scientist, points out that people with knowledge-based characteristics attributed to being college-educated, such as professional behaviors, digital familiarity, an understanding of financial services and innovative inclinations tend to congregate residentially and in employment. In today’s world, the “haves” are most often the ones with a college education, and they like to stick with and hire others of their own kind. It’s easy to see how this can appear unequal.

Many baby boomers were raised with the notion that getting a college education would lead to greater economic gain. Although the message is more nuanced these days, the central point remains the same. One unintended consequence of this virtue is that it also leads to economic inequality and resentment among those not sharing in the bounty. This acrimony can sometimes be heard among those who have taken an anti-intellectual/anti-education stance, such as when expressing skepticism (to put it politely) regarding the viewpoints of the “elites” and the “establishment.”

Addressing this imbalance requires initially a level of respect and acknowledgement that we all have something of value to offer.

Working toward an economic system that honors and tries to achieve an opportunity-for-all ethic could arise from such a belief. Those who benefit from the hard work and commitment of pursuing higher education can assist those for whom college has not been a viable option through assistance measures designed to encourage greater and more affordable college attendance.

And for those not choosing to pursue higher ed? The means of providing employment training, entrepreneurial support and apprenticeship alternatives, along with other opportunity options, could be made more available. Full employment across all socioeconomic groups should always be our collective objective.

Sharing in prosperity across all segments of a pluralistic society is a great challenge. Perhaps we need to see more committed action from those who have succeeded, many of whom profess liberal leanings, to drive opportunity-for-all programs so that no one’s economic prospects are left behind.

Bill Ryan, founder of Ryan Career Services, in Concord, can be reached at 603-724-2289 or bill@ryancareerservices.com.

Categories: Business Advice