The Elite Overproduction Hypothesis
Did America produce too many frustrated college graduates in the 2000s and 2010s?
“We're talented and bright/ We're lonely and uptight/ We've found some lovely ways/ To disappoint” — The Weakerthans
Here’s an eye-opening bit of data: The percent of U.S. college students majoring in the humanities has absolutely crashed since 2010.
Ben Schmidt has many more interesting data points in his Twitter thread. To me the most striking was that there are now almost as many people majoring in computer science as in all of the humanities put together:
When you look at the data, it becomes very apparent why the shift is happening. College kids increasingly want majors that will lead them directly to secure and/or high-paying jobs. That’s why STEM and medical fields — and to a lesser degree, blue-collar job-focused fields like hospitality — have been on the rise.
But looking back at that big bump of humanities majors in the 2000s and early 2010s (the raw numbers are here), and thinking about the social unrest America has experienced over the last 8 years, makes me think about Peter Turchin’s theory of elite overproduction. Basically, the idea here is that America produced a lot of highly educated people with great expectations for their place in American society, but that our economic and social system was unable to accommodate many of these expectations, causing them to turn to leftist politics and other disruptive actions out of frustration and disappointment. From the Wikipedia article on Turchin’s theory:
Elite overproduction has been cited as a root cause of political tension in the U.S., as so many well-educated Millennials are either unemployed, underemployed, or otherwise not achieving the high status they expect. Even then, the nation continued to produce excess PhD holders before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, especially in the humanities and social sciences, for which employment prospects were dim.
Turchin and the others who have suggested this theory make some questionable assumptions about how labor markets work — in general, they focus on labor supply while ignoring the importance of labor demand. But still, the Elite Overproduction Hypothesis is fascinating — there’s some circumstantial evidence in its favor, and it dovetails nicely with some other economic and sociological theories I know of. I think it’s a good candidate for explaining at least some of the unrest — and in particular, the resurgence of leftist politics — that we’ve seen in the U.S. recently.
I went over this idea in a Twitter thread back in 2018 (in response to an earlier batch of data about the humanities), but I thought it deserved a longer treatment. As you read this, keep in mind that I’m just making the case for this hypothesis; I’m not sure how much of the last decade it really explains, but I think it’s plausible enough to deserve serious thought.
A bunch of humanities careers vanished all at once
If you graduated with a degree in English or History back in 2006, what would you do with that degree? If you wanted a secure stable prestigious high-paying job, you could go to law school and be a lawyer. If you wanted to live on the East Coast and work in an industry with a romantic reputation, you could work in media or publishing. If you just wanted intellectual stimulation and prestige, you could try for academia. If you just wanted security and stability and didn’t care that much about money or glamour, you could be a K-12 teacher, or work for the government.
This wealth of career paths probably made young people feel that it was safe to major in the humanities — that despite the stereotype that you couldn’t do anything with an English degree, there was still tons of work out there for them if they wanted it. Studying humanities was fun, it made you feel like an intellectual, and the social opportunities were probably a lot better than if you were stuck in a lab or in front of a computer screen coding all day. And if after a few years enjoying the fullness of youth you felt like going nose-to-the-grindstone and getting that big suburban house and dog and kids and two-car garage like your parents had, well, you could just go to law school.
But in the years after the Great Recession, every one of these career paths has become much more difficult.
First, let’s start with the most important one — the humanity major’s ultimate fallback, the legal profession. Starting around 1970, there was a massive boom in the number of lawyers per capita in the U.S., but by the turn of the century it had started to level off:
As Jordan Weissmann wrote back in 2012, the shakeout that begun in 2008 led to a stagnation in employment in legal services. You could see it in little things like the decline of the “billable hour” (which basically raised lawyers’ incomes by allowing them to overcharge a bit). There was a glut of young people going to law school, but not enough jobs to fulfill their expectations. So after a few years, people realized this, and there was a big crash in law school enrollment:
How about publishing? Here, the decline of titans like Conde Nast is no mere anecdote. The industry also suffered from the Great Recession, but it was probably in long-term decline since the turn of the century:
There’s the internet, of course. Digital publishing is growing, but it seems highly unlikely to make up for the devastation in newsrooms, books, and magazines:
As for academia, tenure-track hiring in the humanities was never exactly robust, but with the decline in higher education funding after the Great Recession, it went into deep decline:
Universities were saving money by replacing tenured faculty with low-paid adjuncts. This led to the horror stories of adjuncts sleeping in their cars, hanging on year after year in the desperate hope that somehow they would catch a lucky break and ascend into the ranks of the tenure track.
How about a job as a public servant? 2008 marked the end of a long boom in government employment:
The same story holds in the K-12 teaching profession. In addition to stagnating employment after 2008, that industry is anything but cushy:
So all of these traditional career paths for humanities graduates suffered in the late 2000s and 2010s. But at the same time, there had been a giant boom in the number of people studying humanities. I showed the percentages above, but looking at the raw numbers gives a better idea of how many people surged into these fields in the 2000s and early 2010s:
That surge set a lot of people up for career disappointment at exactly the wrong time.
So who was hiring in the 2010s? Not Wall Street, which had been at least temporarily tamed by the financial crisis and the Dodd-Frank financial reform. Finance became a tamer and moderately less prestigious industry, and overall employment stagnated. Michael Lewis was famously able to take his art and archaeology degrees and walk into a job as a bond salesman in the 1980s, but in the shakeout after 2008 that was just a lot less possible.
There was Silicon Valley, of course; the 2010s featured the Second Tech Boom, the rise of Google and Facebook and the rest of Big Tech, and the explosion of the venture-funded startup economy. But overall information technology jobs were also in the dumps; sure, you could make a lot of money as an engineer at Google, but “learn to code” is not exactly something you want to be told right after graduating with a degree in art history.
So yes, there were jobs out there in the 2010s. But everything was a lot more competitive than in the decades before — even just to get a regular boring job in corporate America, you had to fight and scrabble. And the kind of intellectually rewarding or socially prestigious careers that humanities majors had prepared for were in especially short supply.
The Elite Overproduction Hypothesis says that this situation produced a combustible social environment that exploded into the unrest of the late 2010s. But why would that happen? Here we have to turn to theory.
The revolution of rising expectations
The basic concept here hearkens back to the mid 20th century concept of the “revolution of rising expectations”. Here’s a concise statement of the idea:
In the 1960s researchers in sociology and political science applied the concept of the revolution of rising expectations to explain not only the attractiveness of communism in many third world countries but also revolutions in general, for example, the French, American, Russian, and Mexican revolutions. In 1969 James C. Davies used those cases to illustrate his J-curve hypothesis, a formal model of the relationships among rising expectations, their level of satisfaction, and revolutionary upheavals. He proposed that revolution is likely when, after a long period of rising expectations accompanied by a parallel increase in their satisfaction, a downturn occurs. When perceptions of need satisfaction decrease but expectations continue to rise, a widening gap is created between expectations and reality. That gap eventually becomes intolerable and sets the stage for rebellion against a social system that fails to fulfill its promises.
In fact, this idea hearkens back at least to Alexis de Tocqueville, and is sometimes called the Tocqueville Effect. Some people claim to have found evidence for this process.
Why would this happen? If things get better for 20 years and then stop, why would you be mad? After all, at least things are better than they were 20 years ago, right?
But expectations matter. In the finance world, a number of economists have recently been playing around with the idea of “extrapolative expectations”. Basically, when a trend goes on long enough, people start to think there’s some sort of structural process underlying the trend, and therefore they assume the trend will continue indefinitely. For upwardly mobile people, or people in an economy that’s growing rapidly, or people whose stocks or houses are appreciating steadily in value, good times might come to seem normal.
And then what happens when it turns out that good times aren’t baked into the nature of the Universe? Suddenly, the mediocrity of reality intrudes upon the complacent expectations of eternal upward growth — housing prices plateau or fall, incomes hit a ceiling, economic growth stalls out. At this point, people could get quite angry. The economists Miles Kimball and Robert Willis have a theory that happiness is just the difference between reality and expectations. If things are better than you predicted, you’re happy; if things are worse, you’re upset. Kimball and Willis formalize the idea with math, but in fact “Happiness = Reality - Expectations” is already a common saying. Evidence from surveys generally supports the idea.
Together, this expectations-based theory of happiness, along with the idea that expectations are extrapolative, makes for a combustible mix. Extrapolative expectations are almost always unrealistic — growth trends don’t continue forever, so people are setting themselves up for disappointment.
A number of people have invoked this idea to explain the massive global wave of protests in 2019 and 2020. Some World Bank researchers wrote that “[Latin American] protesters…are emboldened by recent social gains, rather than by worsening conditions, to demand levels of fairness and equality which are still far from their reality.” In Chile, the Latin American with the most intense and widespread protests, there was also a growth slowdown in the mid-2010s after decades of rapidly rising living standards:
Anyway, it’s pretty simple to apply this to the U.S. in the 2010s. Productivity growth, which had been robust since the early 90s, slowed down sharply around 2005. Housing prices — a big determinant of middle-class wealth — plateaued in 2006 and began to decline in 2007. And the economy crashed in the Great Recession.
But for elites, especially those on the humanities track, the years after the Great Recession were a particularly brutal slap in the face. Income had largely stagnated for Americans with low and medium incomes, but for people in the upper middle class there had still been steady growth — and the upper middle class is the class in which college graduates typically expect to find themselves. The fact that so many young people flooded into humanities majors in the 2000s and early 2010s suggests that lots of them expected a double bounty — to be able to earn a good income while also having a career that fit their personal interests.
In a 2013 blog post, Tim Urban showed some data that supports this story. Here is a Google Ngrams search for the phrase “a fulfilling career”:
Urban somewhat mockingly depicts educated Millennial expectations with the following meme:
I don’t think people deserve to be mocked for having great expectations for their lives, or for being frustrated when those expectations don’t pan out. Try to think of things from the perspective of a 25-year-old who just graduated from UC Davis in 2010 with an English degree. For the past four years, you’ve lived the life of an intellectual — you’ve read dozens of books, expanded your mind with a hundred deep ideas about society and history and the purpose of life, spent long nights discussing and debating those ideas with people just as smart as you are. And all that time, whether you’re the first in your family to go to school or a scion of an upper-middle-class family looking to make your parents proud, you’ve been told that college is the ticket to a spot in the top 20% of American society. You and your parents have certainly paid a price tag that reflects that expectation! And on top of that, everyone has told you that you can (and should!) find a career doing something you love, something that helps the world, and something that uses the education you paid so much to get.
Then you graduate, and nobody wants lawyers, magazines are dying, newsrooms are dying, universities aren’t hiring, and your best bet is either to roll the dice again with years of grad school or to claw your way into some corporate drone job where you’ll be filing TPS reports all day while your diploma rots in a box in your parents’ attic. Meanwhile you’re stuck with $40,000 in undergraduate debt, and the payments are now coming due. It’s neither entitled nor bratty nor arrogant to be unhappy with that outcome.
So I think this is a strong candidate for explaining why unrest exploded among the American elite in the late 2010s.
Unrest among the elite
I’ve been talking about humanities major so far, because Ben Schmidt’s data is so striking, and because humanities careers seem to have borne the worst of the brunt of the post-2008 economic shakeout. But although it may have been most intense among downwardly mobile or unemployable English majors, the unrest in the 2010s was really a broader phenomenon that touched most of America’s young elites.
Various polls throughout the decade showed that young Americans with college degrees were a bit less happy at work than their high-school-educated peers, despite making a lot more money.
It’s easy to draw a line between this unhappiness and the socialist movement in the U.S. Socialism rapidly became more popular among young Americans in the 2010s, and the Bernie Sanders movement exploded upon the national scene. The socialist movement has people from all classes, but overall it’s far from a proletarian movement — this is fundamentally a revolt of the professional-managerial class, or at least the people who expected their education to make them a part of that class. It’s telling that two of the new socialist movement’s most passionate crusades have been student debt forgiveness and free college.
For me, a telling anecdote that first clued me into this hypothesis was when I debated Jacobin writer Meagan Day in 2018. When I pointed out that very few Americans are financially destitute, she responded that “it’s not just destitution, it’s disappointment”, and proceeded to describe her own frustration with the two unpaid internships she went through as a struggling college-educated writer. (This is far from the only such origin story.) From that moment onward, when socialists with college degrees talked to me about the “working class”, it became clear to me that the class they were describing was themselves.
But educated youth unrest in the late 2010s went far beyond socialism. In the 60s it was the urban poor who rioted, but surveys found that the people who flooded into the streets during the massive protests of summer 2020 were disproportionately college-educated. It’s even possible to see wokeness itself as partly an expression of frustration with the stagnant hierarchies of elite society in early 2010s America. After all, if the number of spots at university departments and companies and schools and government agencies suddenly stops growing, it means that young people’s upward mobility will be blocked by an incumbent cohort of older people who — given the greater discrimination and different demographics of earlier decades — are disproportionately White and male.
We like to think of revolutions as being carried out by downtrodden factory workers and farmers, and in some cases that’s true. But frustrated and underemployed elites are uniquely well-positioned to disrupt society. They have the talent, the connections, and the time to organize radical movements and promulgate radical ideas. So far, education polarization means that a large fraction of the non-college majority hasn’t chosen to join these movements (or has expressed unrest in different, far less intellectual ways). But a society that generates a large cohort of restless, frustrated, talented, highly educated young people is asking for trouble.
The expectations reset
So if the Elite Overproduction Hypothesis is broadly correct, how do we get out of this mess? If happiness equals reality minus expectations, simple math tells us that we basically have two options for pacifying our educated youth — improve reality, or reduce expectations.
Improving reality is very hard, but we’re working on it. The industrial policies of the Biden administration are aimed at jump-starting faster economic growth, and more progressives are talking about an “abundance agenda” that would reduce the cost of living for Americans of all classes. But barring a lucky break like the simultaneous tech boom and cheap oil of the 1990s, boosting growth and abundance will be painstakingly slow going. It will also require overcoming the opposition of a whole lot of vested interests — particularly local NIMBYs — who themselves will be disappointed and angry if the government railroads their parochial preferences to fulfill its national objectives.
A more feasible strategy is to reset expectations to a more realistic — or even pessimistic — level. If we take humanities majors as a measure of economic optimism, we can already see this happening, as young people turn to more practical degrees. Interestingly, Google Ngrams for “a fulfilling career” have now ticked down as well. The over-optimistic angry Millennial generation may soon be supplanted by a Generation Z whose modest expectations echo those of their Gen X parents in the late 70s and early 80s.
There may be things that cultural creators and media figures like myself might be able to do to help this “expectations reset” along. Perhaps we should emphasize grit and struggle instead of talking so much about wealth and personal fulfillment.
The government and universities have to be part of this too. Canceling student debt is fine, but long-term reforms to reduce the cost of college, and the debt burdens students incur, will reduce the stakes of the post-college job scramble. Universities should avoid marketing materials that depict them as a golden ticket to wealth and intellectual fulfillment, and should offer career counseling that prepare students for a realistic job market. And government should implement apprenticeships, vocational education, free community college, and other programs that make working-class life a decent bet — in addition to reducing inequality, this will make college graduates feel less “elite” relative to their non-college peers.
Of course, an expectations reset isn’t permanent. If we manage to restore good times, future generations will get used to that upward escalator, and they’ll form extrapolative expectations for their own glide path to success. But that’s a worry for the future. If the Elite Overproduction Hypothesis is true, then our best bet to calm our age of unrest is to bring our dreams down to Earth.
Dear Noah, this article is well-argued and thoughtful.
If you wanted to bring a bit more darkness to the argument, you can look at the literature on terrorist suicide bombers.
Their backgrounds are often disaffected, medium-high educational attainment, frustrated college-aged men. There has been much research about these political assailants which echoes a number of the themes you raise here.
Apologies for bringing a much more bleak set of data to the conservation, but might be worth looking into and reflecting upon given what you’ve put forward here.
The issue, as any conversation with former humanities majors over 50 will tell you, is that you're not at the height of your humanities superpowers until you're at least 40. Also it used to help to live in a city with rent controlled apartments, an acceptance of genteel poverty, and utilities bills that didn't include laptops, internet, cell phones, and streaming subscriptions.